Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The Keene Fruit Ranch:

As the Joads drive into the second camp, they are confronted with shot-gun armed, authoritarian rule (enforced by "tin-shield men" called guards). They are offered work, but not told that some of the workers are on-strike and are attempting to organize a union:

Ranch official: Wanna work?
Tom: Sure, but what is this?
Ranch official: None of your business. Name?
Tom: Joad.
Ranch official: How many men?
Tom: Four.
Ranch official: Women?
Tom: Two.
Ranch official: Kids?
Tom: Two.
Ranch official: Can you all work?
Tom: Sure, I guess so. House 63. Wages five cents a box. No bruised fruit. Move along. You can go to work right away.

At their cabin, more questions are asked by a nasty, surly bookkeeper who checks their name and car license number on a clipboard list to ensure that they aren't agitators:

Ranch deputy: Name?
Tom: Joad. Say, what is all this here?
Ranch bookkeeper: Joad. Not here.
Ranch deputy: License?
Ranch bookkeeper: Oklahoma EL 204. Don't check. (To Tom) Now you look here. We don't want no trouble with ya. Jes' do your own work and mind your business and you'll be all right.
Tom: (muttering to himself) You sure do wanna make ya feel at home here, all right.

While Ma Joad and Rosesharn fix up the inside of the cabin during the afternoon, the rest of the family joins a bucket-carrying procession of 'scab' workers moving trance-like to the fruit groves.

During the family's sparse evening meal, Ma Joad complains about the high food prices in the company store for meat: "Well, they charge extra at that company store and there ain't no other place." Tom leaves to "find out what all that fuss outside the gate was," as Ma warns him to mind his own business: "Don't you go stickin' your nose in anything." Al wants to wander around: "I think I'll look around and see if I can't meet me a girl." Outside, Tom hasn't walked more than a few yards before he is stopped by a flashlight-wielding guard who despotically warns that walks are not allowed that evening: "Now, do you want to walk back or shall I whistle up some help and have you taken back?" As the contemptuous warning is made, the cocky, bullying bookkeeper/deputy shines the bright light of his flashlight into Tom's face.

When he finds an opportunity, Tom ducks away and leaves the ranch, coming upon tents next to a river bank. There, he is reunited with Casy, who was not jailed but run out of town. Tom is informed that there's a striking group of migrants at the Keene Ranch, protesting lowered, starvation wages. Casy predicts that once the strike is over, the fruit pickers' salaries will be reduced by the greedy employers from five cents to two and one-half cents: "One ton of peaches picked and carried for a dollar. That way, you can't even buy enough food to keep ya alive." The striking workers plead with Tom to help organize the ranch's pickers and join the strike against their exploitation, but Tom is content to not get involved with the protest movement:

Tom: They won't. They're gettin' five now. That's all they care about.
Casy: But the moment they ain't strike-breakin', they won't get no five...
Tom: The five they're gettin' now. That's all they're interested in. I know exactly what Pa'd say. He'd say it's none of his business.
Casy: Guess that's right. You'll have to take a beatin' before you'll know.
Tom: Take a beatin'? We was out of food. Tonight we had meat, not much, but we had it. You think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account of some other fellas? Rosasharn needs milk. You think Ma's gonna starve that baby just on account of fellas yellin' outside a gate?
Casy: Tom, you gotta learn like I'm learnin'. I don't know what's right yet, myself, but I'm tryin' to find out. That's why I can't ever be a Preacher again. Preacher's gotta know. I don't know. I gotta ask.

Casy's main justification for getting involved, taking risks, and making sacrifices is simple: "I gotta ask." Outside the tent, they hear approaching noises in the brush - the sounds of sirens and dogs barking. Casy, already identified as the primitive leader of the unified strikers (Casy is amused by his designated role: "They figgured that I'm the leader cause I talk so much"), wades with the other men through the shallow river to hide under the span of a bridge archway. They are spotted in the darkness and in a dramatic, violent sequence, an unarmed Casy defenselessly pleads for common sense from the club-wielding thugs:

Casy: Listen, you fellas. You don't know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids.
Guard: Aw, shut up, you dirty...

The guard mortally wounds the ex-preacher with a sharp blow to the head from his club. Enraged and filled with moral wrath at the injustice of the act, Tom defends Casy from the vicious attack and kills the attacking "tin-shield" guard in retaliation. During the altercation, Tom suffers a serious face wound on his cheek. The guard realizes it won't be difficult to identify him: "He'll have a trademark he won't be able to get rid of in a hurry."

Tom is hidden and cared for in the Joad cabin. Ma has learned about the incendiary incident, and is fearful:

Ma: They say they got posses out. Talkin' about a lynchin' when they catch the fella.
Tom: They killed Casy first.
Ma: That isn't the way they're tellin' it. They're sayin' you done it first.
Tom: Do they know what the fella looks like?
Ma: They know he got hit in the face.

Ma is resigned and blamelessly accepts Tom's accidental killing of Casy's assailant:

I wished ya didn't do it, but ya done what ya had to do.

[This line paraphrased Steinbeck's quote in the novel, "A man got to do what he got to do."]

Understanding that he will eventually be identified, Tom wishes to bid farewell to sensitive and compassionate Ma Joad. She bemoans the fact that they are no longer a real family, hoping that he can stay and help. In a moving monologue, she convinces him to remain, seeing the preservation of the family as the key to its survival. She laments the dissolution of the family ("We're crackin' up"):

Tom, there's a whole lot I don't understand. But goin' away ain't gonna ease us. There was a time we was on the land. There was a boundary to us then. Old folks died off and little fellars come. We was always one thing. We was the family. Kind of whole and clear. But now we ain't clear no more. There ain't nothin' that keeps us clear. Al - he's a-hankerin' to be off on his own and Uncle John's just draggin' around. Your Pa's lost his place, he ain't the head no more. We're crackin' up, Tom. We ain't no family now. And Rosesharn - she's gonna have her baby, but it won't have no family. I've been a-tryin' to keep her goin' but (she sighs)...and Winfield, what's he gonna be this a-way? Grown up wild, and Ruthie too! Just like animals. Got nothin' to trust. (Tearfully) Don't go, Tom. Stay and help! Help me!

Reluctantly, Tom agrees to stay with the family:

OK, Ma. I shouldn't, I know I shouldn't, but OK.

And then from outside, they overhear a new family that's moving in being told that the wages are now two and one-half cents - just as Casy had predicted would happen after the strike was broken. Tom reflects back on what Casy has taught him. He instinctively begins to sense the mission he will carry on in Casy's absence:

That Casy. He might have been a preacher, but he seen things clear. He was like a lantern. He helped me to see things, too.

That evening, in one of the film's more suspenseful scenes, the family buries Tom under mattresses in the truck just as guards arrive to question them and search for the killer of one of the guards. They avoid spotting him when Al explains to guards about the other fellow in their party: "You mean that hitchhiker? The little short fella with a pale-face?...We just picked him up on the way in. He left this morning when the rate dropped."

The family successfully leaves the Keene Ranch without further incident - escaping detection. At the top of a hill, the car runs out of gas, and they are able to coast into a third type of camp - a clean, democratically-run, self-governing Department of Agriculture camp.

The Farmworkers' Wheat Patch Government Camp (Run by the Department of Agriculture):

[Note: In Steinbeck's novel, the camp is referred to as Weedpatch.]

The old jalopy rattles and clatters over a speed bump at the government-sponsored camp's entrance. The friendly, benign caretaker (Grant Mitchell) at the gate explains the purpose of the bump: "A lot of children play in here. You can tell people to drive slow and they're liable to forget, but once they hit that hump, they don't forget." [The camp's director, dressed in white pants and sweater, deliberately resembles President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is actually modeled after Tom Collins, the director of the government-run Weedpatch camp in California, and technical advisor for the film.]

To their astonishment, the Joads have found an idyllic-sounding paradise, in contrast to their previous camp experiences. They are told about the clean facilities: "Number Four Sanitary Unit....Toilet, showers, washtubs." The caretaker also describes to a wary Ma Joad and family how the government camp is democratic and self-governing:

No cops, no, people here elect their own cops. The ladies' committee will call on you, m'am, to tell ya about the children, the schools, and sanitary unit, and who takes care of 'em.

In the office, Tom is told about the rules and regulations of the populist camp. It is one of the few places that provides a "decent" safety blanket for poor migrants, and it is run by "just fellas":

Caretaker: Campsite costs a dollar a week, but you can work that out - carrying garbage, keeping the camp clean, things like that.
Tom: We'll work it out. Uhmm, what's the committee you're talkin' about?
Caretaker: We have five sanitary units. Each one elects a central committee man. They make the laws and what they say goes.
Tom (incredulously): You aimin' to tell me the fellas that are runnin' the camp are just fellas that are campin' here?
Caretaker: (He nods) That's the way it is.
Tom: And you say 'No cops'?
Caretaker: No cop can come in here without a warrant.
Tom: I can't hardly believe it. In the camp I was in before, they'd burn it out - the deputies and some of them poolroom fellas.
Caretaker: They don't get in here. Sometimes the boys patrol the fences, especially on dance nights.
Tom: You got dances too?
Caretaker: They have the best dances in the county, every Saturday night.
Tom: Who runs this place?
Caretaker: Government.
Tom: Why ain't there more like it?
Caretaker: You find out. I can't.

As Tom walks to his campsite, he turns off a water spigot that is wastefully spilling water on the ground (next to a sign which reads: "Turn Off Water Help Keep Our Camp Ground Clean"). Ruthie and Winfield Joad explore the camp washhouse (Sanitary Unit) in a scene which exploits the humor of the situation - their naivete about the camp's flush toilet. The next day, Tom is pick-axing in a ditch (and laying pipe) when the neighboring farmer who has hired them to work, a kindly man named Mr. Thomas, tells them about the plot to disrupt the camp, scheduled for the next Saturday night's dance. Tom's political question about Reds is dismissed and goes unanswered:

Mr. Thomas: Citizens angered at Red agitators burn another squatters' camp and order agitators to leave the county.
Tom: What is these 'Reds' anyway? Every time ya turn around, somebody callin' somebody else a Red. What is these 'Reds' anyway?
Mr. Thomas: Oh, I ain't talkin' about that, one way or the other. All I'm sayin' is that there's gonna be a fight at the camp Saturday night. And there'll be deputies ready to go in.

In an extended sequence of the Saturday night Rodeo Dance at the well-run camp, the migrant workers show their joyous zest for living. Couples whirl their partners around to the fiddle playing of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." Four suspicious-looking citizens are identified as potential trouble-makers by the camp's committee. Their plot to disrupt the camp is frustrated and neutralized. Tom sings "Red River Valley" while dancing with Ma Joad. Deputies who arrive to raid the camp and ostensibly break up a "riot" (without a warrant) are turned away, because there is no evidence of a disturbance.

During the night while the camp sleeps, a pair of deputies are ushered into the camp with the caretaker to check the Joad family's car license. Tom witnesses their search and quickly dresses and begins to pack. He realizes the inevitable alienation that he faces - that they will be back with a search warrant - he will be pursued as a fugitive who has also violated his parole. He knows that his time is short and is now determined to leave the family permanently. A melancholy hoot of a train whistle sounds in the distance.

In the famous, final farewell scene with his mother, as the sad tune of "Red River Valley" plays in the background again on an accordion, Tom speaks to his mother on the empty dance floor of the government camp. In the pre-dawn light as Tom cuts his attachment to the symbols of stability in his life, he has some final reflections on his people, on Casy's life and mission, and the meaning of his death ("about what he said, about what he done, about how he died"). He also speaks about situations that he doesn't fully understand, but still wishes to address. He doesn't want to kill anyone, but do something and find out "what it is that's wrong":

Ma: Tommy, ain't ya gonna tell me goodbye?
Tom: I didn't know, Ma. I didn't know if I ought to...Come outside. There was some cops here tonight. They was takin' down license numbers. I guess somebody knows somethin'.
Ma: I guess it had to come, sooner or later. (They move from the tent to the dance floor) Sit down for a minute.
Tom: I'd like to stay, Ma. I'd like to be with ya and see your face when Pa gets settled in some nice place. I'd sure like to see ya then. But I won't never get that chance, I guess, now.
Ma: I would hide ya, Tommy.
Tom: I know you would, Ma, but I ain't gonna let ya. Ya hide somebody that's killed a guy and you're in trouble too.
Ma: All right, Tommy, but what do ya figur you're gonna do?
Tom: You know what I've been thinkin' about? About Casy, about what he said, about what he done, about how he died. I remember all of it.
Ma: He was a good man.
Tom: I've been thinkin' about us too. About our people livin' like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Well, maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin', and I've been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled...
Ma: Oh, Tommy. They'd drag you out and cut ya down just like they done to Casy.
Tom: They're gonna drive me anyways. Sooner or later, they'd get me for one thing if not for another. Till then...
Ma: Tommy, you're not aimin' to kill nobody?
Tom: No, Ma, not that. It's just, well, as long as I'm an outlaw anyways, maybe I can do somethin'. Maybe I can just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that's wrong and see if ain't somethin' can be done about it. I ain't thought it all out clear in my mind, I can't. I don't know enough.
Ma: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why, they could kill ya and I'd never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

After becoming idealistically radicalized by what he has witnessed, Tom - in a famous monologue - describes how he will carry on Casy's mission in the world - by fighting for social reform. Going off to seek a new world in a place unknown, he must leave his family to join the unspecified movement ("the one big soul") committed to struggling for social justice. In a more optimistic ending than the one in the novel, he has benefited from Casy's wisdom about the sanctity of all life, and a belief in universal love which comes from respecting all of humanity. He also has intelligently realized the unified power of working people speaking up for their rights - a revolution that people must adjust to:

Well, maybe it's like Casy says. A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul - the one big soul that belongs to ever'body. Then...then, it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

Sadly, Ma doesn't understand Tommy's eloquent decision in his soliloquy. Tom doesn't understand things completely either: "Me neither, Ma, but just somethin' I've been thinkin' about." And then with a few more final words of goodbye, Ma Joad says to Tom: "Tom, we - we ain't the kissin' kind, but..." and they kiss, and then Tom walks away - they may never see each other again. She watches him go with a tiny bundle of possessions rolled up in a bundle swung over his back. "Red River Valley" plays again.

Tom Joad strikes out, seen as a tiny image walking up a distant hill, silhouetted against the morning sky. An outcast, he has rebelliously abandoned the dream of the land that has sustained the Joad family for so many generations. He disappears into the morning light - forever.

In contrast to her son is the monumental image of the enduring Ma. Her famous last, meditative lines are delivered inside a truck at dusk as the family moves on in search for "twenty days work" near Fresno, California. A long string of ramshackle trucks winds between groves of fruit trees.

The indomitable matriarch tells Pa of her optimistic faith - a romantic, uplifting notion that they will overcome the oppressiveness and cruelty of the economic system even after the beatings that they have endured and the wrongs they have suffered. No force can destroy the 'people's' will or resilient determination - ever-moving in search of work. She notes that as a strong woman, she can hold the family together as it follows other paths and streams ("with a woman, it's all in one flow like a stream"):

Ma: Scared, ha! I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was though, for a while it looked as though we was beat, good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kind of bad, and scared too. Like we was lost and nobody cared.
Pa: You're the one that keeps us goin', Ma. I ain't no good no more, and I know it. Seems like I spend all my time these days thinkin' how it used to be. Thinkin' of home. I ain't never gonna see it no more.
Ma: Well, Pa. A woman can change better'n a man. A man lives, sorta, well, in jerks. Baby's born and somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow like a stream. Little eddies and waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. A woman looks at it that way.
Pa: Well, maybe, but we sure taken a beatin'.
Ma: I know. That's what makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an' they die an' their kids ain't no good, an' they die out. But we keep a-comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out. They can't lick us. And we'll go on forever, Pa... 'cause... we're the people.

[Note: In Steinbeck's original novel, this scene was located at the 2/3rds point in Chapter 20, and was spoken to Tom, not to Pa. The final scene in the novel was a disastrous strike-breaking episode in which Tom was clubbed and beaten, and Casy was killed.]

With a steely look of courage, faith, and unbowed strength, having survived a tough "beatin'," strong-willed Ma Joad vows that she will never be afraid again. As the key figure in the film, the matriarch has optimistically faced the challenges of almost-certain destruction, and led the family with dignity through life's situations with a transcendent attitude and feminine life force.

[Note: The film ends on a more hopeful and upbeat note than Steinbeck's novel. In the melodramatic novel, there is a bleak and shocking ending unlike the film. After the loss of her stillborn baby, Joad daughter Rosasharn offers her maternal breast, filled with milk, to be suckled by a starving man in a railroad car.]

The film's final wide-shot shows a long procession of migrant trucks and jalopies moving along through the countryside.

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