A FILM OF 1939 HAS TO BE considered a historical document. Seeing it again in 1978 confirms this fully as far as cinematography is concerned. But there is something more to it which captures the viewer's mind as much as it must have done decades ago when it became, rightly so, a success acclaimed world-wide.
This film is truly a work of art and hardly could be called simply entertaining. It reaches far beyond that, and its impact has not lost anything of its former strength. It is interesting to observe how today's students, members of a generation very different from Steinbeck's, react to it: they are utterly tense watching the screen, from the first to the last picture.
What has Steinbeck really accomplished here? First of all (and that was his immediate intention), he wanted to write an exciting novel of "J'accuse," Zola style, indicting the Government of his time of irresponsibly handling human beings like merchandise. The mismanagement and mistreatment of dispossessed farm people desperately struggling for the beginning of a new life on an unknown soil is perhaps no longer that much of a problem in our country. Yet the problem of the migrant farm workers still exists to a certain extent, as one can clearly see: "There is a federal housing code for migrant camps matched by codes in 32 states, but their enforcement is pitifully slack because of the growers' local political connections. Thus, migrant farm workers are the worst housed group in the nation, according to a New York Times article, November 27,1971. The end product of miserable working and living conditions is severe health problems for the farm worker" (Chicago Sun Times, 1972).
This proves the accuracy of Steinbeck's "J'accuse" more than thirty years later, and so it is important and valuable that this film was shown again, not only for its artistic high quality but even more so for its profoundly special and humane presentation of the problem.
But there is still more to this movie. What Steinbeck achieved here is part of a timeless human tragedy. In this movie not only do underdogs flee from an unjust society within an immature and imperfect social system, here man flees from mankind, from his fellow man as a fallible creature. If it were a film of the "J'accuse," Zola style, only, it might not fascinate today's audiences any longer, almost forty years after it was shot. But this film has a touch of the great classical epic, let's call it Homerian without praising it beyond merit. Even though the technical side of the film may appear somewhat old-fashioned to the contemporary viewer, to me as a member of Steinbeck's own generation even the outdated technical features of it add to its value and greatness. Certain scenes, lengthy as they may appear to our young people, performed grippingly by great actors, make the film even more explicit and convincing. It should be kept alive for a long time.