BOUND FOR GLORY (1976) — Hop a Train with Woody Guthrie

Bound For Glory was released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time in a Limited Edition of 3,000.

Bound For Glory, directed by Hal Ashby and lensed by the late, great Haskell Wexler, is based on legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie’s autobiography of the same name. Both the book and movie are generally understood as being largely fictional constructs, and I’m no Guthrie historian, so in reviewing this film I’m ignoring the question of historical accuracy and just commenting on the film for what it is.

David Carradine is showcased here in one of his best roles. As Guthrie he sings and plays guitar and harmonica, and nails the folksy salt-of-the-earth air that’s critical to the character. Like many rural Americans of the time, Guthrie tries to survive the Great Depression by heading west to California. By riding the rails as a hobo, trying to make a living in a California Hooverville, and eventually finding work and fame with his music, he develops ideals about unionization and human rights, and does his best to stand up for humanity and shine a light on injustice and economic hardship.

And yet, even though this is a Woody Guthrie biopic, he’s in some ways the least interesting part of it. That’s not to insult either the man or Carradine (who is really excellent here in the role), but for all his noble aspirations, the character of Woody as portrayed here is a self-centered heel who abandons his family without so much as a word, and tries to make love to every woman between Texas and California despite being married and ostensibly loving his wife. For all his positive work and influence, there’s that really rotten part of his character that’s hard to get past. His family rightfully leaves him after being put through the wringer one time too many, which I think in the context of the film is intended to feel tragic, but instead comes off as a well-deserved gut punch.

That said, this is probably the most powerful vision of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression that’s been put to film. As someone with an interest in that era, I found this stuff really engaging. The production design is striking in its period realism, and Wexler’s camera work is of course extraordinary. Nowhere is this more apparent that in an early dust storm scene which showed how a family tries to cope with their home darkened and filled with swirling dust, donning masks and trying to pass the time by singing together.

The film has great supporting performances from Ronny Cox and Randy Quaid as two particular men who inspire Woody. Cox plays a local radio celebrity who discovers Guthrie and helps make him a star, and who shares his disdain for injustice. Quaid has a relatively small but very important role as one of the many men facing economic hardship who inhabit the Hooverville, trying to find work and support their starving families. His character strikes up a friendship with Guthrie, and the window into his personal plight gives a face to the faceless masses. It’s his relationships with these two characters that galvanizes Guthrie into writing and singing songs that amplify the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is one of my favorite books, and one of the great American novels, but John Ford’s film adaptation was a product of its time and turned it into a bit of a cartoon. I’ve always wanted to see a more contemplative version, and Bound For Glory, while not directly related, shares a lot of the same beats and almost fits the bill.

The Package

Bound For Glory arrives on Blu-ray in a Limited Edition of 3,000 units from Twilight Time, and has their usual packaging aesthetic: a clear Blu-ray case and 8-page booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo, which mostly focuses on the character of Woody and his many foibles stacked against his nobler aspects.

Special Features and Extras

Isolated Score Track
 One might hope for this track to include the many toe-tapping musical numbers in the movie, but it’s only the literal score. So despite the film being filled with music from beginning to end, this track is quite sparse.

Theatrical Trailer (2:38)

I’m not sure how much I could recommend it as a Woody Guthrie biopic, but Bound For Glory is absolutely worth viewing as a window into one of America’s most tumultuous eras.

A/V Out.

Available directly from Twilight Time.

Get it at Amazon:
 [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

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