Steinbeck’s Red Devils


Still from “In Dubious Battle.”

When I received email from a publicist announcing the premiere of a film based on John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” directed by and starring James Franco that opens on Friday, February 17th, I knew at the outset that this would not be in the same league as John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath”. Everything I have heard from Franco in the past five years or so persuades me that outside of acting he overestimates his talents, whether it is writing poetry or teaching classes in the NYU film school. If he wants to become a renaissance man, it would probably be best for him to stick to projects he is qualified for, like being named the face of Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.

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.

One morning an older worker falls to the ground and breaks a leg because a rung on the ladder he scaled to pick apples had splintered apart underneath his feet. Bolton orders the men to take him away and get back to work. Seeing an opening for his plans, Mac implores the workers to go out on strike. Over the span of two months, the strike grows ever more bitter with the men having to deal with scabs, vigilantes, cops loyal to Bolton and strikers relying on meager support networks for food and other material aid. In other words, this was a typical labor battle of the 1930s and one that Franco was incapable of doing justice to.

To start with, the film has the look and feel of a TV movie which perhaps was necessitated by the tight budget Franco had to work with. After all, why spend millions on a film about a labor struggle from the 1930s when there are much more promising investments like “The Great Wall”, a joint Hollywood-China production starring Matt Damon that at $150 million cost 10 times as much as Franco’s film. What the two films shared was a poverty of filmmaking art.

In the actual labor battles of the early 30s, there were thousands of workers who went out on strike at once. Given the paltry funding of “In Dubious Battle”, it is understandable why there were no more than 50 farmworkers at Bolton’s orchard, including extras. That being the case, didn’t Franco understand how absurd it was for the sheriff defending Bolton’s property rights (played against type by Bryan Cranston) to warn them that hundreds of National Guardsmen would come in to break the strike? Probably the local cops would have could do the job.

But the biggest problem was character development. The two Communists, the men who are following their lead and the boss are all stick figures. I could live with Bolton being a scumbag because that’s generally how men who own fruit orchards in California are. But Mac and Jim are almost like characters out of a 1950s Red Scare movie such as “I was a Communist for the FBI”. Mac is manipulative, always appearing to view the strikers as cannon fodder for a larger cause. The problem is that throughout the entire film there is zero dialog about politics. Additionally, the party that Mac and Jim belong to is not named. This means that you have little idea what would inspire such organizers to sacrifice so much for the strike. Communists certainly saw such struggles as a means to an end, even if by the end of the 1930s that meant reelecting FDR who exempted farm workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in order to assuage the Dixiecrats who were the southern version of Bolton.

Whether FDR was a racist or only pragmatically catered to racists in order to push through New Deal legislation is immaterial. Racism is much more a function of what you do rather than what you think. Historically, the workers who were excluded from the FLSA in California were Mexicans. Like the Blacks of the Deep South, they were super-exploited. They were also the people who went out on strike in the early 30s against the big California growers whose struggles were fictionalized in “In Dubious Battle”.

So why did John Steinbeck represent them as migrants from the Dust Bowl rather than Mexicans? Although I never read “Tortilla Flat”, it seems that Steinbeck was a bit of a racist. In “Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film”, Arthur C. Pettit wrote: “Tortilla Flat stands as the clearest example in American literature of the Mexican as jolly savage… [T]his is the book that is most often cited as the prototypical Anglo novel about the Mexican American…the novel contains characters varying little from the most negative Mexican stereotypes.”

The Okie strikers in “In Dubious Battle” do not fare much better. Their elected leader is a man named London who is played by Vincent D’Onofrio as a bumbling, inarticulate and credulous bear of a man. If you’ve read “Of Mice and Men”, you’ll see similarities between London and Lenny Small, the mentally-impaired ranch hand. When Mac is trying to figure out who would be the best instrument for the party’s grand plans, London is the perfect foil.

As bad as “In Dubious Battle” is as a film, you can at least credit Franco and screenwriter Matt Rager for being faithful to Steinbeck’s novel. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Franco explained his approach to the original when asked why he would make a film about labor struggles from more than 80 years ago. He said:

It’s very topical; the idea of battling “the man” will always be relevant. Unions, wages, 1%ers vs. the rest, strikes — these are things that will always be relevant as long as there is an exclusive upper class resting on a larger lower class. But what I was really interested in showing was man in conflict with himself.

When Franco refers to such conflict, it is important to understand how that relates to the title of Steinbeck’s novel that is an epigraph from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”:

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,

That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,

His utmost power with adverse power opposed

In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

All is not lost—the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

These are words spoken by Satan who also said that it would be “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” And make no mistake about it, this is how Steinbeck viewed the Communists—virtual devils.

The idea of workers being driven by “revenge” and “immortal hate” is central to Steinbeck’s novel. As dedicated as he was to the struggles of the poor for a better life, he did not trust the Communists. Furthermore, with respect to the workers whose cause he championed, there was little love lost on the actual humanity fighting for a better life. Edmund Wilson put it this way in a review of “In Dubious Battle” in the New Yorker: “Mr. Steinbeck, almost always in his fiction, is dealing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level.”

Steinbeck, whose reporting on the California strikes in The Nation evolved into the novel, was taken down by Mary McCarthy in the same magazine:

It is quite possible that a successful proletarian novel could be written according to this classic scheme; but I submit, in this minority report, that Mr. Steinbeck was not the man to write it. If a revolutionary general with a talent for prose—say Trotzky—had cast his reflections upon the technique of class warfare into the form of a novel, though they would fall more naturally, as did Caesar’s, into the form of a memoir, the results might have been exciting. Caesar—and doubtless Trotzky —had something to say about the curious and wonderful behavior of embattled human beings; Mr. Steinbeck, for all his long and frequently pompous verbal exchanges, offers only a few, rather childish, often reiterated generalizations.

While Trotsky was not a writer of fiction, his “History of the Russian Revolution” would have been a good place for Steinbeck to learn about working people’s real lives and feelings. Even if he would not have bothered, there were some steps he could have taken to make his novel more truthful.

Whatever problems the CP had, and they were many, how plausible would it have been for Mac McLeod to openly refer to workers as virtual cannon fodder to new party member Jim as they are about to set out for the organizing drive? In chapter three, Jim asks what will happen if Bolton agrees to a wage hike right off the bat. Mac replies:

Well, we’d find another job to do somewhere else soon enough. Hell, we don’t want only temporary pay raises, even though we’re glad to see a few poor bastards better off. We got to take the long view. A strike that’s settled too quickly won’t teach the men how to organize, how to work together. A tough strike is good. We want the men to find out how strong they are when they work together.

Farrell Dobbs, the Teamsters organizer and leader of the Trotskyist movement who Jimmy Hoffa once credited for teaching him everything he knew about organizing, believed that victories—even if swift—empower workers and make them want to struggle further. A long and painful strike will only make them wary of further efforts.

Mac continues in a vein that sounds disconcertingly like a black bloc member when the question of workers (the “tramps”) getting killed comes up: “Well, the vigilantes start shooting. If they knock over some of the tramps we have a public funeral; and after that, we get some real action. Maybe they have to call out the troops.”

Both in the film and in Steinbeck’s novel, Mac comes across as an ultraleft idiot. When the cops put up a barricade to prevent supplies from coming in to their camp, he leads a march to take it down that is dispersed by tear gas. Back at the camp, he dresses them down for lacking the guts to bust through as if he were a football coach. He sees the strike mainly in military terms, not something that is a test of the collective will that draws upon class solidarity.

For Steinbeck, the strikers and the vigilantes are depicted as combatants using force on each other and little else. Despite his hope that the workers would win, his fiction departs from the reality of the strikes used as source material. It was the landowners and vigilantes who were largely responsible for bloodshed in the actual strikes, with the workers only seeking to defend themselves when attacked. Indeed, the sheriff of Fresno County who confronted the real-life strikers admitted: “We are not afraid of any overt act [strikers] might commit. In fact, that is the thing that troubles us; they don’t commit any overt act, don’t give us a chance to help ourselves by legally getting out and getting them by the neck. They just agitate and agitate and keep the farmers unsettled.” (quoted in “Solidarity Forever: The Historical Background of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle” by Jon Falsarella Dawson in The Steinbeck Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2015).

All in all, Steinbeck can barely suppress his disgust with working people that seems to be akin to Eugene O’Neill’s portrait of Yank, the steamship engine stoker in “The Hairy Ape”: barely human. One worker is a “ruminating cow”. Strike leader London has the eyes of a gorilla. Challenging the boss turns them into virtual werewolves. The “stiffs don’t know what’s happenin’, but when the big guy gets mad, they’ll all be there; and by Christ, I hate to think of it. They’ll be bitin’ out throats with their teeth, and clawin’ off lips. . . . That big guy’ll run like a mad dog, and bite anything that moves. He’s been hungry too long, and he’s been hurt too much”.

For Steinbeck, the solution to inequality was a paternalistic leader like FDR who set up beneficent camps like the one depicted in the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” as part of the Resettlement Administration. As the 1930s came to an end, Steinbeck’s views hewed close to that of the New Deal old guard that followed in FDR’s footsteps, including LBJ and Hubert Humphrey—prosecutors of the war in Vietnam that Steinbeck supported.

His last published book was “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War” that was based on reports he filed for Newsday from 1966-1967. His articles praised American soldiers as “glorious knights” holding the line against Communism. They were “our dearest and our best and more than that – they are our hope.” On the other hand, the Vietnamese were referred to as “Charlie” and “leprechauns.” He also enjoyed being embedded with the invaders, going out on Mekong river patrols, learning to fire an M-79 grenade launcher, and flying on reconnaissance missions. He had a brainstorm about the value of using homeless Saigon street boys as spies in the countryside. Antiwar demonstrations were “shuffling, drag-ass protests”, “conscience-bound not to kill people” and as such “a little silly.” Steinbeck believed people like me were nothing but “hippies, folksingers, and self-indulgent college students who opposed the war while hiding behind their 2-S draft deferments”, basically guilty of cowardice.

Come to think of it, James Franco doesn’t look so bad compared to the author he based his film on.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.