A movie of John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’

I recently saw a great new movie—”In Dubious Battle,” based on John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel and inspired by agricultural workers’ strikes in California in 1930 and 1933.

Directed by and starring James Franco, the movie’s cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston and other fine actors.  The photography is beautiful.  The direction is powerful.  It works well, both as drama and propaganda.  I’m glad I saw it.

This post, however, is not a review of the movie, but thoughts about questions raised by the movie.

Based on everything I’ve read, I think wages and working conditions were just as bad as the film depicts, and workers were just as desperate.

I think the criminal violence of the growers is only slightly exaggerated.  They didn’t openly commit murder, as depicted in the movie.   Rather they arranged to have labor leaders arrested in trumped up charges, and to have strikers, including peaceful picketers, fired upon and killed, as had been done so often in American labor strikes.

The most interesting part of the movie is the character of the labor organizer Mac McLeod, played by James Franco, and his apprentice Jim Nolan, played by Nat Wolff.

They are identified as generic radicals, without any specific affiliation, but what they represent is the Communist ideal of the labor hero.

They are completely dedicated to the cause of the working class, wanting nothing for themselves, and the Mac McLeod character in the end knowingly sacrifices his life to the cause.

Their dedication supposedly justifies their lies and manipulation of workers in order to achieve their goal.   They are not the official leaders of the strike, but every initiative comes from them.

There is not one instance in the movie of one of the fruit pickers themselves initiating anything good or having a good idea of what to do.   This is the Communist view that workers on their own cannot think strategically, that they need to be led by a vanguard, consisting of themselves.

I have to admit the inconvenient fact—inconvenient to self-described liberals such as myself—that Communists and anarchists were fighting for labor rights and for racial equality, many at risk to their lives, at a time when many of us college-educated middle-class liberals and progressives held back.

I think the world owes more to real-life Mac McLeods than many of us care to admit.   At the same time, I would not want to live under their rule.

People who are hard on themselves frequently think this gives them a right to be ruthless toward others.   The great flaw in the Communist program, other than its commitment to an unworkable economic system, is lack of accountability to anyone except each other.

There are minor inaccuracies in the film.   Farm workers were paid by the amount of fruit picked, not by the day.  The striking California farm workers were not all Anglo white people, as depicted in the movie.   This omission does not spoil the movie, but it should be noted.

There were 31 agricultural workers’ strikes in California in 1933, of which 24 were conducted by the Communist-led Cannery and Industrial Workers Union.

The Roosevelt administration pressured employers to make concessions, which were granted in 20 of the CIWU strikes and four of the seven other strikes.  But the CIWU didn’t win recognition as a bargaining agent and gradually faded away.

The movie’s conclusion refers to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and other legislation in a way that makes it appear that labor rights are a settled issue and that the movie is of historical interest only.

The fact is that the New Deal was double-edged.   Franklin Roosevelt wanted to strengthen labor unions and improve the condition of American workers.   At the same time, he was anti-revolutionary.  The New Deal legislation undercut the real-life Mac McLeods by integrating unions into the existing system.


Imperial Valley lettuce strike of 1930 from Wikipedia.

California Farmworkers’ Strikes of 1933 by Kate Bronfenbrenner of the Cornell University Industrial Labor Relations School.

Of Mice and Men: 50 years on, Steinbeck’s classic still packs a punch by Barry Healy for Green Left Weekly  [Added 11/15/2017]  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

John Steinbeck, the Dust Bowl and Farm-Worker Organizing by Harry Targ for Portside [Added 11/24/2017]  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.



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5 Responses to “A movie of John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’”

  1. Bill Harvey Says:

    And The Big Picture in 2017:

    David Bacon, “Migration, Labor, and US policy”

    David Bacon- a go-to guy on these issues.



  2. ashiftinconsciousness Says:

    Wow, that’s some cast of actors. I’d love to see it.



  3. Fred Says:

    As a teenager, I once picked baby cucumbers in the field in Michigan at 50 cents per 5 gallon bucket. It was expected that rural kids would do farm work over the summer. It was a brutal job and the only way I managed it was the invincibility of youth.


  4. Edward Says:

    These days this work is done by illegal immigrants who are easier to exploit.


  5. Edward Says:

    This system may have its origins in the South’s plantation system. All over the world agriculture seems to work this way.


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