Like most people I suppose, my knowledge of Steinbeck is based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”, a novella I read in high school. The publicist provided a synopsis of the film: “In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up against the landowners after getting paid a faction of the wages they were promised. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening.” I said to myself that even if Franco makes a mess of this Steinbeck story, it would still be worth watching for the subject matter alone. Guess what. I was wrong.
Steinbeck’s novel was based on historical events. In the early 1930s, farmworkers in California fought pitched battles with the agribusinesses we became familiar with in the 1960s when the UFW was fighting to organize farmworkers in the lettuce fields and grape vineyards.
The earlier strikes were organized by the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Franco stars as Mac McLeod, a Communist organizer who has taken raw CP recruit Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) under his wing. The two of them head off to the fictional Torgas Valley, where they begin working at an apple orchard owned by Bolton, an old-school capitalist pig reminiscent of C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons”. Not long after starting work, they learn with the rest of the men that their pay will been cut from 25 to 20 cents per hour. They can take it or leave it. Robert Duvall, a long-time Republican outlier in Hollywood, was cast as Bolton. No method acting preparation was required from someone who belonged to a labor-hating political party.