In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This column will explore my thoughts on 35 films I’ve selected from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is The Grapes of Wrath (1940), #23 on the list.
Films about the Great Depression are surprisingly scarce on the AFI top 100, especially considering the overwhelming abundance of films about war, or their strange obsession with boxing films. It’s odd that there aren’t at least a few entries on the list devoted to this time period, but it may speak to Hollywood’s hesitation to grapple with real-life pain. This is what makes The Grapes of Wrath such a peculiar and special film. Not only does it deliver a relatively uncompromising depiction of crippling poverty and the unfortunate disillusionment of hope, but it did it seemingly in the midst of it. Like Apocalypse Now, The Grapes of Wrath is close to its subject, coming out as the country was still recovering from the impact of the recession, most notably in unemployment. Even apart from the context, the film itself is pretty fantastic – Henry Fonda gives a characteristically impressive and empathetic performance, and John Ford’s direction paired with Gregg Toland’s gorgeous cinematography perfectly frames the heartfelt story in a variety of environments and landscapes.
Does it belong on the list?
Even if it wouldn’t make my personal top 100, this period in American history needs to be represented, and the list could use more uplifting films about harsh circumstances, so it absolutely belongs on the list.