When Peter Fonda passed away last month at 79, critic Peter Tonguette lamented that the actor never became the big-screen equal of his father. Son Peter “was known for boyish flamboyance” in films such as The Trip (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and The Hired Hand (1971). Tonguette’s list passed over The Wild Angels (1966) in which Peter Fonda, playing the biker Heavenly Blues, delivered a speech of great significance.
“We don’t want nobody telling us what to do,” proclaims Heavenly Blues. “We don’t want nobody pushing us around. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man.” Fonda’s dialogue evoked his father in a way that has escaped notice.
Henry Fonda starred in many films, including the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In this Depression-era story, directed by John Ford, the Joad family is forced off their land and head to California in search of a better life. Some critics attacked the film as somehow un-American, and that caught the attention of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
As Nikolas Budanovic notes at Vintage News, Stalin thought The Grapes of Wrath could serve as a propaganda tool and in 1948 approved the film to be released in the USSR. Aside from the grim portrait of America in the 1930s, the film showed that, in America, even the poorest owned an automobile, off-limits to Soviet citizens at the time. In Stalin’s USSR, Budanovic explains, “the poverty-stricken Joads were perceived as well-off members of the middle-class who have nothing to complain about.” Stalin quickly ordered the film to be pulled from the cinemas and the episode openly revealed “the flaws of a central-planned economy.”
Despite the problems of the 1930s, the Joads owned an automobile and were free to drive it pretty much anywhere they wanted, without being hassled by the man. Those freedoms remain important, so in that way Peter Fonda was the equal of his father.
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