Everyone wants their children to have a life better than their own. That’s no different for Wang Lung (Paul Muni) a poor farmer who tends the fields with his aging father. Wang is the only survivor of six sons and is about to get a wife. We watch as he fulfills his chores in excited anticipation and wonders if his bride will be ugly. For that special day, he makes tea and takes a bath; his father believes both are extravagant. Right away, we understand how humble these people are and how important their land and crops are to their life.
Wang’s bride is O-Lan (Luise Rainer) who was sold to The Great House as a child during times of famine. As Chinese women are expected to be, she is quiet, modest, self sacrificing and never asks for anything. On the new couple’s walk home, Wang buys peaches for them and from Wang’s discarded pit, O-Lan plants a peach tree. Besides a metaphor for their life together, family growing and all of that, it is just a joy to watch it grow and blossom.
What unfolds is the story of their life together and how the land affects all aspects of it. Children are born and grow next to the work. Crops are harvested and they eat well or lost and they nearly starve. During famine, Wang cannot bring himself to kill the ox for food, but O-Lan remembers that her family sold her for food and is able to slaughter the beloved animal. In uncertain times, it’s often O-Lan who can make tough decisions, some of them can be shocking.
Rainer brings so much to the screen as O-Lan. She’s everything a Chinese wife should be and yet there seems to be more to her. The way she’s able to make some tough decisions that I doubt most women (Chinese or otherwise) could bring themselves to is haunting. She’s a good mother, teaches her children well and never forgets that she was once a slave sold by her family. For the beautiful portrayal of O-Lan, Rainer won her second Best Actress Oscar and was the first person to win in two consecutive years.
Many times, films about Eastern culture make me feel like an ignorant outsider. There’s too much focus on cultural customs that don’t always get an explanation, but not in The Good Earth. The Lung family has been poor farmers for generations and the important things to a farmer in China aren’t much different to a farmer anywhere else. Just with a little change of crops. Even when strictly oriental customs start to come into play, we aren’t left out to just assume everything with a quick respectful bow, they’re made into the conversation enough to catch on easily.
You can probably guess from the names of the actors that neither is Chinese. Nonetheless, their makeup is very convincing, nearly natural. Today, I think people could throw a racism card at this just for kicks, but I don’t feel that way at all. The efforts to make Muni and Rainer look Chinese are honest and not done in an overly stereotypical fashion. There’s a mile wide gap between any criticism that could be thrown at this and the dreaded blackface that plagued the 30’s.
The great thing this film has to tell is a story about remembering your roots (should be natural for a farmer). Towards the end, it seems that Wang needs to remember what is most important, but I won’t give you any further details, that’s a key part of the film’s experience. The best way to become emotionally involved with the Lung family is to experience the events of their life with them. If you think you’ll be turned off by the foreign aspect, this is an American film and did not feel out of touch at all. I recommend this to nearly everyone just because it was a wonderful story.
“If it weren’t to undignified I’d tell her she’s a good wife.”