In the 1940 classic film Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) delivers the famous “I’ll Be There” speech just before walking out of the government migrant worker camp in California to avoid arrest for an earlier justified killing. Joad’s speech — earnest and inspiring — surely had audiences back in the day pushing out their chests a little more. And it probably resonates for many even today because that scene (the entire film, actually) evokes, brilliantly, something that America has long promised but has not fully delivered — justice for common folks. Joad’s everyman set out from the camp to find what was wrong and put it right — worker exploitation and police brutality were in his sights. He left his Ma (the wonderful Jane Darwell) and the rest of the Joad kin with a promise that wherever wrongs were being answered he would be there.
The speech and the character are as iconic as they come — in both film and literature. John Ford delivered a faithful rendering of Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel of a family of Dust Bowl Okie’s run off their land by faceless bankers and former fellow tenant farmers on Caterpillar tractors. He and Steinbeck were both squarely on the side of those who were ravaged by circumstances and indifference, pushed close to losing their dignity but never, in the end, doing so.
It is a beautiful film, shot in stark black and white, and the use of shadow is particularly evocative and menacing. The picture features strong performances by Fonda, Darwell and, especially, John Carradine as the fallen preacher Jim Casy (J.C.), who sacrifices himself for his fellow man. Yes, it’s stagey and occasionally a little tart but it’s not cynical. In many ways, it’s quite affirming in its unblinking celebration of human worth. As Casy says early in the film, “All that lives is holy.” Amen.