Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Heath Holland On...Route 66 and The Grapes of Wrath

Everybody pile in the car, we’re going on a road trip! No, we’re not there yet.

By the time you read this week’s column, I’ll be hundreds of miles down Route 66. No, I’m not hitchhiking…THIS TIME. My family and I will have driven from Alabama up to Chicago, Illinois, where the road starts. From there, it’s over two thousand miles through Middle America’s main streets, deserts and valleys until it eventually ends in Santa Monica, California. We’ve been planning this trip for months; I hinted at it way back in February in my column on American Grafitti.

There’s something about Route 66 that has made it synonymous with American culture. Steakhouses name hamburgers after it. Fast food restaurants name milkshakes after it. Route 66 has permeated our art for the better part of a hundred years. From Norman Rockwell to Jack Kerouac, the road looms large as not only a national icon but also as something more intangible: an ideal.

It’s a difficult thing to explain because most of us have grown up in a post-66 world. It’s something that, as Americans, many of us take for granted in the same way we do the American Flag or Mount Rushmore. It’s there, it must mean something, but it’s not something that we’re going to spend too much time thinking about. I certainly didn’t until about six months ago. Now I want to be on the road so much I can practically taste the air.
Route 66 has been decommissioned as a main road through America for decades now, and you won’t find it on many maps. With the advent of the Interstate system, people can get from point A to point B in the quickest possible way, making older, slower roads like 66 not only out of fashion, but obsolete.

One of the reasons my family decided to travel on this decommissioned road was to try to reconnect with this America of the past, the America full of dreams and opportunity. In our preparations we’ve searched high and low for media to aid us on in our planning which would immerse us in the story of what John Steinbeck called “The Mother Road.” Sadly, there are very few books dedicated to what the road actually is and means, and there are even fewer films. Sure, lots of movies shot film on the highways that make up Route 66, but very few of them have anything to say about the road itself. That’s understandable, because we often don’t realize the value of something until it’s gone.

I’ve selected three particular movies that approach Route 66 from three distinctly different viewpoints and embody the spirit and the legend of the road as an ideal. For three weeks, starting with this week’s column, I’ll be talking about each of those three movies and exploring how the hot asphalt and concrete slabs of a dead road reflect America back upon itself.

This week I’m focusing on the 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a dangerous thing to talk about such an iconic film when people like JB have, no doubt, been teaching this for years and years in the classroom. But The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect snapshot of a particular time and way of life, back when the road was young and many Americans saw it as a path to a better life. Route 66 is as much a character in the film as any of the actors.
The Grapes of Wrath is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by John Steinbeck and stars Henry Fonda, Russell Simpson, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine. It was directed by John Ford and nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1941. It won two of them, and in 1998 it was number 21 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies. In other words, it’s a big hairy deal.

The Grapes of Wrath is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression and tells the story of the Joads, a farming family in Oklahoma. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) has been released from prison after serving time for homicide when he returns back to his family’s farm to discover that they are being evicted from the farmland that they worked and lived on.

This was a real thing that hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers faced during the '30s. The Great Depression was an economic collapse of unprecedented scope, with millions unemployed and looking for work. At the same time, the Dust Bowl was affecting farming land in the mid-west United States. Over-farming had combined with drought conditions meaning that farms were no longer yielding crops. Without crops there was no income. With no income and poverty touching many areas of the country, there was no way to maintain the deeds and payments to remain on that land. Many farmers found themselves kicked off of the very land that they had sweat and toiled over, essentially finding themselves homeless. That serves as the very real, very topical setting in which these characters find themselves. The film was made in 1940, meaning that these woes were still a recent occurrence.

Tom discovers his old family farm empty, save for a crazy man who has decided that he’s not going to leave. Tom also finds an ex-preacher named Jim Casy, who has lost his faith as well as his way of life. Together, Tom and Jim Casy find the rest of the Joads holed up at Tom’s uncle’s house. They’d heard that there were better opportunities out in California: farming jobs that paid well, fair businessmen and a hope for a better life. They pack up everything that they own onto a converted sedan that they’ve made into a makeshift truck and set out for California along Oklahoma Highway 66.
A significant portion of the movie’s first hour is spent showing the arduous journey of the Joads along Route 66 from Oklahoma and through the harsh landscapes and wildernesses of New Mexico and Arizona. They don’t have any money, so things like food and gas are hard to come by. They stop at a diner and try to buy a loaf of bread so that they can eat. They are run out of multiple towns as soon as they arrive, told that there are no opportunities for them there and that they’d best keep moving down the road.

Within the film (and Steinbeck’s novel) are the depictions of real people and real struggles. As I’ve read more about the movie, it seems like 1940s Hollywood was shaken by the merciless representations of middle Americans. There were kudos and accolades, awards and platitudes, but there was also quite a bit of controversy. There were accusations of communism and socialism, of Red-sympathy and the demonizing of California’s agriculture industry. Both sides of the political aisle felt like they were being insulted, and the book on which this film is based found itself on quite a few banned-book lists.

Yet what’s interesting to me, watching the film with 21st Century eyes, is how little seems to have actually changed since the novel and the movie were released over 70 years ago. We find ourselves yet again in a down economy and with a broader than ever gap between the haves and have-nots. Foreclosures are still a very pressing threat to many Americans. In many ways, The Grapes of Wrath feels more timely than ever.

I’m not going to give a play-by-play of The Grapes of Wrath, because it is an epic, exhausting journey. It’s not a fun movie to watch, and it’s filled with the disappointment and heartache that permeated the nation during the Great Depression. It is, however, an important movie that has something to say. There are movies that entertain, but there are also movies that teach. This is definitely the latter. Personally, I tend to shy away from movies that I know are going to be heavy and require a big emotional investment from me, but this is very much worth your time if you haven’t seen it. Not everyone who set out from Oklahoma (either in this movie or in real life) made it to California. The journey along Route 66 did not lead to prosperity and happiness for many of those who traveled down its never-ending miles.
Next week’s Route 66-themed movie will be brighter and not nearly as dour, but it’s important to give respect to the reality depicted in The Grapes of Wrath. The early days of Route 66 were full of hardship and were carved out of sweat and blood. The road has been many things for many people. For the Joads, it was the hope of salvation from certain death. Whether or not they found that salvation almost seems beside the point, as The Grapes of Wrath is more concerned with the journey than the destination. It depicts Route 66 as an endless road filled with endless struggle, but ultimately leading to a destination. We don’t always end up where we think we will. More often than not, the journey is the true destination. And that’s why I’m out on the road right now. I’ll eventually get to where I’m going, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the trip.

We’ve got miles to go before we sleep. I’ll see you next week when we’ll be a few hundred more miles down the road!


  1. I'm assuming pics from your roadtrip will be forthcoming?

  2. Nice column Heath. I remember watching Grapes of Wrath back in middle school I believe and after reading this article I am surprised how much of it is still in my head. Slightly off topic there's a great episode of South Park that parodies Grapes of Wrath except it's about the loss of the internet, anyway...

    Despite the many down notes Grapes of Wrath does it also has a few positives, such as the one scene where they stop at a gas station to get some food and people actually help them out. I think it's one of the reasons movies like Shawshank Redemption are held in such high regard, they have those hopes that after being in a horrible prison that good people can be found.

    1. It's not showing up for me. I want to have fun, too.

    2. sorry Patrick, maybe it's like Polar Express you have to believe it's there to see it, do you believe in the 3 rules?

      Spoiler Alert, its the intelligent gremlin from Gremlins 2: The New Batch

    3. Nice! I respect the gesture. I just have to believe HARDER.

  3. Great article Heath, I look forward to reading your future installments.