One of the most overlooked disasters in US history is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
A vicious combination of bad farming techniques and drought destroyed millions of square miles of farmland in the Midwest, turning the topsoil into dust from western Arkansas to the Rocky Mountains.
The most dramatic results were gigantic apocalyptic clouds of eroded dirt that blackened the sky. The saddest result of the Dust Bowl was the forced displacement of 2.5 million Americans.
Some of these migrants headed west, looking for good land and honest work. It is said that one quarter of California’s white population is descended from these refugees. They were called Okies because many of them were from Oklahoma. It sounds like a lovable nickname, but it was intended as a bigoted insult.
Native Californians treated the Okies like animals. They were herded, bullied, and exploited. The classic contemporary movie “The Grapes of Wrath” tells their story.
During my year of watching classic films, I’ve learned why the name Fonda is synonymous with great-looking movie stars. Henry Fonda is outstanding as Okie tough guy Tom Joad.
Tom just got out of prison and suddenly he has to lead his entire extended family to California in an old pickup truck. Fonda finds the perfect combination of working-class authenticity and Hollywood hunkiness. Tom is soft-spoken, and introspective – but there’s a hint of danger and violence lurking under the surface.
Tom wants to be a good man and a peaceful man. But director John Ford shows that the odyssey of sorrow and humiliation that Okies faced was enough to turn a Republican into a union organizer.
If you have to find a criticism of this classic film, it’s that Ford tries to pack too much substance into two hours. The result is a movie that is bursting at the seams with wisdom and unvarnished pessimism.
Tom’s grandfather dies somewhere along Route 66 and the family buries him on the side of the road. Tom insists that they leave a note on the body promising that they didn’t murder the old man so that the authorities don’t come after them. “It seems like a lot of times the government has more concern about a dead man than a live one,” Tom muses. What a dark, thought-provoking observation.
Speaking of the government having no compassion for the living, I was blown away by the honest reaction of Tom’s family when he returns home from prison. “There’s something I’ve gotta find out,” his mother asks – point blank, “Did they hurt ya, son? Did they hurt ya and make ya mean mad?”
I was not expecting that. In a subtle PG-way, John Ford exposes the ugliest secret of our country: the emotional isolation, violence, and sexual assault that men experience in prison that turn some of them into unrecognizable monsters.
“The Grapes of Wrath” is a great movie and a truly important one. Everybody knows about The Great Depression and World War II. But the Dust Bowl was worse than either of them for the people of Oklahoma. This film is an appropriately grim time capsule that ensures that we will never forget what the Okies went through.