‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Versus ‘The River’: Desperation in Rural America

April 26, 2020 Updated: April 27, 2020

Movies about common people fighting oppressors, nature, and poverty are as endearing in recent times as in 1940. “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Ford’s 1940 drama about the Dust Bowl, is considered one of the greatest of American films. “The River,” Mark Rydell’s 1984 drama that marked Mel Gibson’s American debut, strongly resembles it. Although released 44 years apart, these movies are remarkably similar.

“The Grapes of Wrath” follows the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers who lose their land after drought ruins their crops. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) gets out of jail on parole and finds his family packing for California. He and his parents, grandparents, siblings, brother-in-law, uncle, and former minister Jim Casy (John Carradine) head west in a ramshackle jalopy, hoping for nonexistent jobs. The family must fight to survive and stay together.

(L–R) Frank Darien, Russell Simpson, and Henry Fonda
(L–R) Frank Darien, Russell Simpson, and Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Fonda captured the essence of John Steinbeck’s character, according to the author. (Twentieth Century Fox)

“The River” follows Tom Garvey (Mel Gibson), whose Tennessee farm is threatened by a rising river and impending foreclosure. He and his neighbors are burdened by the milling company’s low grain prices. The company is run by Joe Wade (Scott Glenn), who is as eager to buy Tom’s land for a dam as to steal his wife, Mae (Sissy Spacek). Tom fights for his land and family.

Different Settings, Similar Stories

Both these films depict whole communities of farmers plagued by economic hardships and natural disasters, though they focus on individual families with leading men named Tom. The Oklahoma farmers in “The Grapes of Wrath” face drought and dusty winds, while the Tennessee farmers in “The River” endure torrential rains and flooding. In both films, some lose farms that their families have owned for years, so they must pack single vehicles to leave the land where they have lived their whole lives. The Joads lose their farm, and although the Garveys keep their land, the Gaumers, who are the Garveys’ neighbors, leave their repossessed farm to find work elsewhere.

Both films contain strikes. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Joads’ first California job is picking peaches, locked in gated grounds. When Tom Joad investigates at night, he learns that they were hired as strikebreakers after previous workers wanted increased salaries. In “The River,” Tom Garvey earns extra money at a steel mill. When the workers see disgruntled strikers outside, they realize they are “scabs,” locked in for protection. In both films, the strikebreakers are mistreated when the strike ends, in the first film by lower wages and in the second by abrupt dismissals.

a community dealing with a flood
Farmers struggle to hold back floodwaters in “The River.” (Universal Pictures)

Both movies show farmers defending their properties against destruction. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Joads’ neighbor, Muley Bates (John Qualen), watches tractors reduce his land to dusty fields. When one nears the house, Muley threatens to shoot the driver. Recognizing him as Joe Davis’s boy (John Arledge), Muley asks why he has this job. Davis says he needs the daily $3 to feed his family. This scene resembles the climax in “The River,” when the Garveys defend their levee against Joe Wade’s shovel-bearers. Tom Garvey sees someone climbing the levee and shoots at him. When he recognizes Baines (Mark Erickson), a fellow steel mill scab, he asks why he’s doing Wade’s “dirty work.” Baines, who lost his farm and supports a wife and baby, replies, “I’m hungry.”

PG-13 Versus PCA-Approved

When “The River” was released in 1984, the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) rated it PG-13. When “The Grapes of Wrath” was released in 1940, it was not rated, since the CARA was not created until 1968. Its predecessor was the Production Code Administration (PCA), which guided films throughout production to ensure their compliance with the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood’s content guidelines 1934–1968. A PCA Seal of Approval, which was necessary for American distribution, signified acceptability for everyone.

According to an email response from Tom Zigo of the Motion Picture Association, “’The River’ was rated ‘R’… on September 25, 1984. CARA’s Appeals Board upheld the ‘R’ rating on October 3, 1984. The film had been edited, and the edited version also was rated ‘R.’ CARA’s Appeals Board overturned the ‘R’ rating on October 12, 1984, and the film was rated ‘PG-13.’” It doubtless received its initial rating for frequent profanity. In addition, there is graphic blood in a steel mill fight and when Mae is injured. Also, Tom and Mae have a suggestive bedroom scene.

Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek
Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek in “The River.” (Universal Pictures)

“The Grapes of Wrath” came from John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel, a difficult book to turn into a Code film. Its controversial pro-union message made it banned in many areas. Since the Code discouraged political agendas, conservative director John Ford highlighted the Joads as people, saying he “was not interested in ‘Grapes’ as a social study,” according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). He sympathetically depicted the Okies’ plight without leftist messages. Content revisions were necessary, since the novel contained profanity, vulgar humor, and sacrilegiousness. The novel’s ending was unacceptably controversial, so it was replaced with a hopeful speech. Despite these changes, IMDb reports that author Steinbeck loved the film, saying Henry Fonda made him “believe my own words.”

Temporary Victory Versus Inspiring Hopefulness

“The Grapes of Wrath” ends with an ideal, not a single victory. Jobs couldn’t truly solve the problems of the Joads or the millions they represented. Since it was impossible to happily, realistically conclude the story, Ma (Jane Darwell) summarized their future thus to Pa (Russell Simpson): “Rich fellas come up, and they die, and their kids ain’t no good, and 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. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.” Such determination can inspire everyone.

an old poor couple
Ma (Jane Darwell) and Pa (Russell Simpson) Joad and in “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

“The River” had great potential but remained obscure. I think its biggest shortcoming is its ending, which feels incomplete. Seeing he has been licked by the farmers’ camaraderie, Joe Wade plugs the last, single leak with a sandbag as a sign of truce, but his defeat is temporary. He then predicts, “Sooner or later you’re going to have too much rain, or too much drought, or too much corn. I can wait.” Although the film ends with the Garveys happily together, we fear they soon will lose their land.

These films have similar plots and comparable scenarios, yet one is considered a masterpiece while the other received negative reviews and lost money. “The Grapes of Wrath” cast a rising young star, and “The River” cast a charismatic up-and-comer, so both had great potential.

Mel Gibson in his first starring role in an American film
Mel Gibson in his first starring role in an American film. (Universal Pictures)

“The River” captured realism through blood, vulgarity, and foul language, precluding families from seeing it. “The Grapes of Wrath” avoided inappropriate and offensive content, yet its stark realism remains gripping. When filmmakers cannot vivify their movies with swearing, violence, and risqué situations, they must deepen their stories and characters. If “The River” had been a Code film, perhaps it would have had depth, completion, and hope like “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.