Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Heath Holland On...Route 66 and The Grapes of Wrath
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.
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 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.
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.
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!