This is another one I’ve seen quite a few times (part of my history class) but watching it again, I’m reminded at the subtle and not-so-subtle powers of master director John Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland. With this viewing, I particularly took notice of the use of shadows; the way Ford and Toland cast shadowy graves over the land the Oakies are being forced to vacate. Check out the above screenshot of Muley Graves (played by John Qualen) and realize he’s talking about what makes that land his and his people. They worked on it. They grew on it. “Some of us was born on it. And some of us…will die on it. That what makes it ‘arn.” He says this not defiantly but in utter defeat, and as he crouches into the ground that he so passionately claims is his, the shadow he projects grows in size and power. Later with the CAT trucks come to tear his home and farm down, the ghostly shadows of his family are cast over the wreckage. Unlike the Joads and the rest of the Oakies, Muley refuses to give up the land and stays behind as a refugee, possibly slipping into insanity. The screenshot is so powerful to me because it’s an image of a man standing up to the powers that be and submitting to them at the same time.
This is the end result of Ford’s westerns, this is the Paradise Lost of the majority of his artistic output; the West does not belong to the men who fought for it, died for it, won it, but someone far out East who can dispatch goons in Cadillacs with pieces of paper to push folks off their own land. “Well, then who do we shoot?” one of Muley’s kin ask the Cadillac Goon, and if it’s something of a joke to modern audiences, it probably wasn’t to Ford. The idea of a man protecting his own land with guns and strength was no longer valid in 1940, that fantasy of history dead as black shadows cast over swirling dust.