Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Bound for Glory, an underrated gem from 1976 detailing the life and times of Woody Guthrie.
If the movie brats of the seventies exist in the public consciousness at all then it’s because of such titles as The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Jaws. Yet their output was far more diverse than these titles suggest, indeed a number of directors turned their hand to the great depression for inspiration: amongst Robert Altman’s prolific work of that decade resides Thieves Like Us and Peter Bogdanovich made the charming black and white comedy Paper Moon. Most surprisingly however was Hal Ashby’s decision to make Bound for Glory an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography of the same name. Surprising because up until this point his directorial work consisted entirely of comedies (albeit black, cynical, satirical or a combination of the three), including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail and Shampoo. Despite this seeming incongruity, Bound for Glory deserves its place amongst Ashby’s finer works, and remains the last film he made with any true merit (despite their supporters I find both Coming Home and Being There overly trite, and the less said about Eight Million Ways to Die the better).
Of course, Guthrie lived until 1967, so his autobiography, and therefore the film, only covers a portion of his life. After making the decision to head from Oklahoma to California in order to escape the depression (leaving his wife and children behind), Guthrie (David Carradine) spends a time on the road gradually getting politicised along the way. Upon arrival in California he becomes involved in labour relations and begins to make a name for himself as a folk singer on the radio, as well as at union fund-raising functions.
Despite the scantiness of the narrative, Ashby still manages to tease out a running time of almost two and a half hours. And yet the film never appears overlong as its pacing closely mirrors the attitude of its protagonist. During the first half, in which Guthrie is on the road, it presents itself with the same easy-going charm that Carradine portrays. Indeed, before his political awakening, Guthrie has a certain neutrality to him, reacting the same to a moment of comic relief as he does to a brief outbreak of violence. It is only once he becomes involved in the unions that he finally discovers a true sense of purpose, and the film does likewise. Moreover, because of the initial lackadaisical approach, this change is welcome and, unsurprisingly, only makes us connect with Guthrie more.
Owing to this strong link between the film and its protagonist, the central performance has to be a strong one, and thankfully David Carradine delivers. Despite finding fame with the Kung Fu television series in the early seventies, Carradine’s cinematic work has been found lacking. There are a number of worthwhile efforts there (Death Race 2000, Q The Winged Serpent and The Long Riders, for example), yet he has often been overshadowed by fellow cast members or reduced to a supporting role. Perhaps this will change with his forthcoming villain turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, though it doesn’t escape the fact that Carradine has never produced a body of work as impressive as his brother Keith’s (who has himself made a number of depression era movies: the aforementioned Thieves Like Us, as well as Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby and the marvellous Emperor of the North) and will forever be seen (at least to cinema audiences) in a lesser light.
Perhaps the exception which proves the rule, Bound for Glory features Carradine’s finest work; ably coping with the shifts in tone and Guthrie’s character arc, he also provides the vocal performances and, importantly, looks comfortable behind a guitar (a case of one-upmanship following Keith’s performance in Nashville, and subsequent Best Song Academy Award?). Moreover, much of the film’s first half relies solely on Carradine being the only on-screen participant and yet he never fails to keep the audience’s attention.
When the film does require a supporting cast, Carradine is ably backed up: a number of familiar faces, from Brion James to M. Emmet Walsh, have tiny roles; and Ronny Cox (best known for playing the “Old Man” in RoboCop) offers a nice contrast to Carradine’s lazy charms, with his determined fellow union-man/troubadour.
Of course, a review can’t go by without a mention of Haskell Wexler’s stunning Oscar winning cinematography. A favourite of Ashby’s (Bound for Glory was the first of four collaborations), Wexler manages to capture both the beauty and mundanity of the open-road without ever making the photography seem over obvious. Rather, there’s an almost documentary-like quality to the work, unsurprising given that he’d spent most of the early part of the seventies working on a number of factual efforts, as well as directing the fact-fiction hybrid Medium Cool.
Interestingly, considering the film is almost entirely forgotten today, Bound for Glory was one 1976’s Best Picture Oscar contenders alongside Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men and Rocky. Of course, the latter film took the award, yet Bound for Glory truly deserves its place amongst that group. Moreover, it stands as a testament to director Hal Ashby, who over a brief period was a truly great director, and one in serious need of a critical re-evaluation. Hopefully, this DVD release will provoke a little more interest.
Picture and Sound
It’s difficult to assess the visual side of the disc without a full knowledge of cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s intentions. Whilst there is certainly the occasional scratch and dirt, the general hazy quality of the picture is, I presume, intentional.
The sound is restricted to a Dolby Digital two channel mix. For the most part monaural, the songs come off fine, as does the dialogue, and it is questionable as to whether this type of film would necessitate a 5.1 or DTS mix.
As with many MGM back title releases, extras are limited to the original theatrical trailer. Whilst this may be, for some, a nice memento, one wishes that the disc’s makers could have supplied some brief notes on Guthrie’s life or perhaps some excerpts from the film’s source material.
A fine film still searching for an audience almost twenty years on. One hopes that the recent success of the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, with its similar blend of depression era setting and wonderful soundtrack, will allow this to find a similar cross-over audience.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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