James Franco clearly has a high regard for 20th-century American literature, having directed himself in a biopic about Hart Crane and Josh Peck in one about Charles Bukowski, and adapted not only As I Lay Dying but The Sound and the Fury to the screen. Until I saw his adaptation of In Dubious Battle, I thought that, like John Huston, his literary taste exceeded his directorial grasp.
It’s been half a century since I read the 1936 strike novel In Dubious Battle, and I doubt I understood the politics when I read it for an 11th grade term paper on Steinbeck’s writing, though I retained a vague respect for the least well-known of “the Dust Bowl trilogy” novels (the better known ones are The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men).
The movie looked really good (credit Bruce Thierry Cheung, who also shot “Bukowski” and “The Sound and the Fury” for Franco and directs him in the forthcoming “Kill the Czar”), sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. Franco had a very strong cast including himself as Mac, the unionizing agitator, Nat Wolff (who was in Franco’s “Palo Alto”) as his protégé who goes beyond Mac in ruthlessness, Vincent D’Onofrio as the bearish leader of the local workers, Robert Duvall (who played Franco’s gay character’s father in “Wild Horses”) as the owner whose apple orchard is being struck, Sam Shephard as a hard-bitten small grower who agrees to let the strikers stay on his land, Ed Harris as a punchdrunk labor activist, Bryan Cranston as the sheriff (in one scene), and Selena Gomez as the new mother and love interest whose baby Mac and Jim deliver upon arrival at the fruitpickers’ camp.
Book and movie can be labeled “agit-prop,” but the villains (Duvall and the thugs he employs) are not fantasy bad guys but representations of the rapacious industrial agricultural elite licensing goons to campaigns and acts of terrorism against workers seeking to make a living (and not just during the Great Depression: see the would-be strikebreakers in 1972 in “Harlan County, USA”).
Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle is the story of an experienced labor organizer, Mac, and Jim, a trainee who proves himself more cold-blooded in sacrificing individuals to future victory than Mac. They latch on to a strike against apple growers who cut the pay they advertised in half after fruitpickers made their way to the orchards.
I thought the location might be in Oregon, in that the California Central Valley is too hot for apples, but apparently the main model was a 1933 peach-pickers’ strike in Tulare County (south of Fresno) and a cotton-pickers’ strike. Steinbeck himself went on record that “as for the valley in In Dubious Battle—it is a composite valley as it is a composite strike.” (The movie looks pastoral, but not Californian; it was filmed in Bostick, Georgia and Yakima, Washington, the latter being real apple country.)
He also did not specify “the party,” though his initial intent was to write about a communist organizer. There is reference to early IWW (Wobbly) actions in ways that seem to me to make it another, more specifically laborer organization.
Franco’s movie stuck quite close to Steinbeck’s story though the first three quarters (though adding a female sympathizer), and deviates most in the ending (particularly in whom is killed). The movie dramatizes incidents that are told about rather than directly narrated by Steinbeck, and the philosophical discussions between Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton mostly were left in the source material. It’s not clear to me how much Steinbeck accepted treating particular working people as means rather than ends in the larger struggle against capitalist agriculture. Over the course of the novel and of the strike, Jim is hardened, Mac somewhat softens, and Doc expresses skepticism about what would happen if the party triumphed (the Soviet show trials were only beginning in 1936, when the book was published; presumably it was written before them).
The title from Milton indicates that the struggle is doomed to failure, but what seems dubious to me is that success in overthrowing one set of oppressors creates new ones, as in the Soviet Union. But the clear and present danger in the book is the encouraging by the overlords, the three families that run the valley, of vigilante violence against those seeking a living wage to provide for the families. Mac has plenty to say about the bullies and chicken hawks, notably American Legion members who were in the armed services but not in WWI combat.
(on earlier adaptations to the screen of Steinbeck fiction see here)
©2017, Stephen O. Murray