‘In Dubious Battle’: Steinbeck’s apple pickers, rallied by James Franco

A video screengrab from ‘In Dubious Battle’.
A video screengrab from ‘In Dubious Battle’.

NEW YORK, Feb 17 — James Franco’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle, about striking California fruit pickers, is the farthest thing imaginable from the titillating provocations for which Franco is notorious. Along with his films based on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, it belongs to the literary subgenre that might be called James Franco’s eat-your-spinach movies.

The first novel in Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl trilogy, which also includes Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle is Franco’s stodgiest movie: A traditional historical drama replete with stale boilerplate dialogue and a choppy narration about the early days of the American labour movement. It was a time when striking workers risked brutal, sometimes murderous retaliation by greedy bosses and their rich cronies.

Directed by Franco from a screenplay by Matt Rager (who also wrote the script for Franco’s The Sound and the Fury), it stars Franco as Mac, a fiery union organiser who, with his much younger protégé, Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff), sets out to organise apple pickers in the fictional Torgas Valley of Central California.

Mac is fiercely idealistic but unscrupulous, and Jim a starry-eyed naïf. Both belong to “The Party” (read Communist). When the labourers learn that their promised pay has been reduced from US$3 (RM13) to US$1 a day, they are ripe for the plucking as potential union members. Robert Duvall, with his usual aplomb, plays the evil landowner Bolton, who appears gun in hand with his posse.

The rebellious fruit pickers are soon feuding among themselves, and before long organised protest morphs into dissension, chaos, arson and death. The movie’s latter half is a mess; pivotal characters aren’t properly introduced, and the rusty dialogue clanks so heavily you feel you are watching a vintage made-for-television movie.

In Dubious Battle wants to be a noble period piece in the mode of a John Sayles film like Matewan. But it is too flat-footed and sloppy to explore the obvious parallels between then and now, and the movie is peppered with gratuitous star cameos that distract rather than enlighten. At least it means well.

Additional information:

In Dubious Battle is rated R for violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. — The New York Times

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