Published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath details the true-life mass migration of Texans after years of drought – known as the Dust Bowl – through the eyes of the fictional Joad Family. It’s a classic American novel, Pulitzer Prize winner and a staple of High School English in the US. It also made an impact on twenty-something Aussie Charlie Turnbull and inspired this travelogue, The Bikes of Wrath.
After a night’s spirited conversation, Turnbull and his friends, including co-director Cameron Ford, decide to replicate the Joads’ journey by cycling from Oklahoma to California in 30 days. What’s more, they’ll film the entire journey. Taking no more than US$420 (equivalent to the $18 the Joad family had for travel expenses), the men agree that they can earn any extra money needed by busking from town to town. Finding a place to sleep, meanwhile, will depend on the kindness of strangers and alleyways. For all of the men, it’ll be an adventure, but it’ll also be an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of America.
Let’s be up front, it’s very easy to read the above and go into The Bikes of Wrath thinking it to be nothing more than cinematic ‘begpacking’; a tabloid fad that saw western tourists – mainly middle class – busking and begging for money in the more impoverished areas of the world. It’s a criticism raised by someone who stumbles across the men outside a corner shop. ‘You look pretty fucking smart,’ he laughs. ‘Why you doing this? I have to do it!’
Fortunately, The Bikes of Wrath is quick to show how fast the five friends re-evaluate their endeavour once they land on American soil. The further they cycle to their finish line, the more they shed their preconceived notions of how they’re going to get there. It’s the little things they didn’t plan on that make the biggest impact. When one of them sprains his wrist, you can feel the air being taken from their sails.
It helps then that everyone they meet on their journey welcomes them with charity and bemusement. In small localised towns, there are people who are willing to help each other, simply so they can help these five crazy Aussies. In a current climate where the US is seen as red hatted, wall builders, The Bikes of Wrath reminds you that you can’t judge many by the actions of the few.
Amidst the group hugs and love-ins, the film echoes the faint heartbeat of a country that is successful in covering its cracks. Perhaps the biggest impact comes when the gang meet a homeless wanderer on the highway who admits to having deliberately left his home without food or water, as he doesn’t expect to come back. It’s one of the most sobering and strongest moments in the documentary.
Whilst the film never really does as deep a dive into Americana as perhaps some audiences would want, The Bikes of Wrath is an uplifting look at human kindness and reminds us that we can all try a little bit harder to be good to our neighbours.
Now available on OzFlix, we take a look back at the difficult path taken to the screen by the uncompromising Australian drama, The Nothing Men, starring Colin Friels, David Field and Martin Dingle-Wall.
Alex Lykos, the writer of Alex & Eve, and writer/director/star of the upcoming Me & My Left Brain (pictured here with co-star, Miss Universe Australia 2008, Laura Dundovic) joins the throng of voices to the heated debate about how to get audiences to engage with Australian films in the cinema.