Directed By: Hal Ashby
Written By: Robert Getchell (based on the autobiography Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie)
Starring: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon
It’s difficult to draw any conclusions about Woody Guthrie by the end of Bound for Glory. Is he a wandering and gallant hero who leant a voice to the voiceless? Or is there more sadness in his story? A man who through his good intentioned principles grew complacent, unwilling to compromise for the sake of his family as a responsible father perhaps should. The film’s evaluations seem up in the air. In a way it’s both a strength and a fault of Hal Ashby’s loose fitting biopic.
Ashby’s portrait of the political singer-songwriter is deeply human. The director’s unwillingness to resort to a romanticisation of Guthrie keeps the character grounded and reveals him with honesty; warts and all. But the director is so toothless in his reluctance to actually say anything definite about his subject that the film seems to carry an air of disinterest. Ashby seems to be distracted, like Guthrie is in the way of the true portrait he wishes to paint, the portrait of Desperation America’s battlers of which Guthrie is but one.
Where the film is at its strongest is in its ability to evoke place. The true protagonist of Bound for Glory is that dustiness that owns 1930’s America. The first hour of the film is contained to Guthrie’s Dust Bowl home in Texas, and it’s in creating a world so vivid, whose depiction is so complete, that Ashby is able to source such a palpable desperation and struggle. You can feel the dust swirling in your nose, turning your skin to chalk, as Ashby’s slow fading cuts and restless drabness, where the costumes threaten to become a singular mess with the sandy streets, leaves us at a total mercy to the setting. By the time we finally see greenery it feels as though the world has been lifted from our shoulders, such is the sense of imprisonment that Ashby, and the terrifically redolent photography of Haskell Wexler, are able to create.
Majority of the film is dedicated to Woody’s (David Carradine) relationships to the many other southern migrants who journey to California in hopes of a more prosperous climate. When Woody himself resolves to trek West after floundering in the hellish town of Pampa as a sign-writer, the film settles into a habit of pottering as our hero cycles from Dust Bowl to Dust Bowl.
As is the case for Ashby the director, it becomes clear that Woody never truly wants to leave this scene, to risk becoming detached from the blue-collar Americans to which he belonged for so long. Woody of course strikes it lucky through his music. He’s picked up by a radio station, amasses a fan base and sponsors, but it becomes clear that just as Woody’s wife fears a return to their days of poverty, Woody fears a departure too far from it, where he ceases to represent the people that are most in need of his voice. It’s here that Guthrie’s complexities are unveiled, where he emerges into a man of three dimensions, however the director’s dust dwelling blockades any true statements of conviction.
David Carradine gives a good performance as Woody, creating a character that’s sweet and sympathetic without being coy. The film’s most resounding moments of passion stem from Carradine’s musical performances. It’s through these that the film is truly able to speak to us, to reveal, but those moments of communication aren’t as frequent as one would hope. Ashby’s best work is in evoking time and place. He’s wonderful at getting to the heart of Guthrie’s world, it’s a shame he’s not able to get to the heart of his protagonist with equal clarity.