By Marc S. Sanders
David Carradine plays Woody Guthrie in Bound For Glory, directed by Hal Ashby. It’s a magnificent performance in a well-constructed film especially by the standards available in 1976, and still today in 2022. Yet, am I capable of showering the film with additional accolades?
My first viewing of the Oscar nominated picture occurred with my Cinephile pals (Thomas Pahl, Anthony Jason and Miguel Rodriguez). More or less, we all had the same reaction. The film is as slow moving as much as the slow-moving trek that Guthrie embarks on from his dustbowl home town of Pampa, Texas all the way to California. Guthrie is a musician, especially when he’s strumming a guitar and he’s altogether attractive to anyone within earshot as he seemingly makes up the lyrics to his Depression-era Americana songs on the fly. Anyone reading this has certainly heard of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Woody is married to Mary (Melinda Dillon) with two children, and as the film opens in 1936, his hometown is flat broke. There are no jobs anywhere. Families are abandoning their homes that they can’t afford to maintain. Literally, no one has two nickels to rub together. It also doesn’t help that the town and outlying areas are plagued with monstrous dust storms. Ashby with legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler offer up a caption of one such storm towering over the town like a terrible tsunami. Even on Blu Ray, this is eye opening. It’s a magnificent visual effect that took me completely by surprise.
Shortly thereafter, Woody ups and leaves his family with just a note saying he’ll send for them once he settles down in California. I can only guess he’s looking for a better life, and I can only presume California is the promised land of wealth and well…glory! I don’t recall a prior conversation that praises the state as the land of milk and honey.
Wexler spoils the viewer with countless moments of scenic design as the film moves on. We follow Guthrie as he walks the endless roads towards the west with nothing to hold in his hands. He hops on cars that pass by. He also hitches rides upon locomotives heading in the western direction. Ashby reminds us that the sojourn is not easy. Seems like everyone has the same idea in mind as Woody; looking for a better way of life. Fights for sitting space on train cars break out. Authorities try to shoot stowaways off the trains, and the best place to hide is maybe on the roof of the train, or simply hanging on to a ladder with your elbow painfully folded over, as the train moves on.
Whenever I watch a film, I try to make a habit not to look at the time. If I do, I feel like I’ve broken the wall of the environment I should be immersed in. I kept to my rule on this film, but Guthrie’s journey takes so long, that I truly thought once he reached California, that would be the end of the picture. Not so. There was at least another hour to go. Wow, did this thing move at a snail’s pace. Woody arrives and gets into episodes of infidelity, and more importantly he bonds with another strummer named Ozark Blue (Ronny Cox), who travels the state singing in support of a union for the poor and destitute working odd jobs on farms and railroads earning only pennies by the day. Woody eagerly takes up the cause even as he is becoming a pop sensation on the radio. The fight for the rights of the poor becomes so passionate for him that he butts heads with the radio big wigs who insist on knowing what he’s going to sing about on air, to ensure the wealthy sponsors remain happy.
I read briefly afterwards that much of what is depicted in Bound For Glory is actually not true to Woody Guthrie’s story. My buddies felt a little betrayed knowing that. I still don’t know what is and isn’t accurate. I dismissed all of that, though. What fascinated me was the technical work of the film. When David Carradine is leaping on to a moving train or jumping off of it, that’s really him. We also uncovered that along with Rocky, also released in 1976, Ashby’s picture was one of the first to use a Steadicam and the output is marvelous. Ashby with Wexell’s lens is unbelievably impressive. They capture Carradine walk through an ocean of extras while strumming the guitar and singing in the moment; his voice never cracking and all happening in one take. Carradine is seen standing in between train cars and lying on top of them with the rising or dawning sun in the foreground. The film delivers a literal moving picture to Woody Guthrie’s most famous song “This Land Is Your Land.” For a film made in the mid-1970s I certainly believed what was captured was genuine to the mid-1930s.
Ashby also seemed to be inspired by the The Grapes Of Wrath. Numerous cars of the time are disproportionally stacked with furniture like dressers, kitchen chairs and tables, along with knapsacks and sleeping bags, while the raggedly clothed children hang out the window or sit on top. A nipple bottle top is attached to a glass Coke bottle for a baby to drink from. If you are looking for reference material of what it was like to live in the times of the Depression, look no further than Bound For Glory.
I can’t say I will rush back to watch this film again. The story never grasped me. I was waiting for that special turnaround moment to come that would perk up my interest. It just never arrived. There’s no question, however, that the merits of the piece stem from the set design and camera work at play. It is absolutely jaw dropping. Woody Guthrie’s story, though, not so much. He had faults. We learn he is not a devoted family man (something we’ve seen many times over in countless stories), and his drive to fight for the rights of the working man doesn’t appear to stretch very far. After nearly 2 hours and twenty minutes, Guthrie up and decides to resume his countrywide walkabout on trains to sing in devotion for the working class across the country, but beyond a favorite camp fire song, what else did he truly accomplish? There’s never a time when he sways the authority to see it his way, and there’s never an announcement that a union is established in direct response to Woody’s movement. At best, we are offered Randy Quaid in a small role as a one of the poor family men who reminds Woody to keep doing what he’s doing. However, that’s a staple of any biography film really, and in pictures like Malcolm X or The Last Emperor, it seemed that much more effective.
Maybe there was more to Woody Guthrie. I just didn’t feel that Bound For Glory illustrated much beyond the song we all know and love. So, was that enough?