[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
To make a film celebrating the life of Woody Guthrie, and to nominate that film for Academy Awards, is something like the U.S. Government’s putting Henry David Thoreau on a postage stamp. It’s a way of institutionalizing the pariah as a practitioner of the American ideal, once he is safely dead and no longer a danger to the American reality. Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory is an appropriate reflection of this double standard. For a film bent from the beginning on the canonization of its hero, Bound for Glory is oddly noncommittal about what Woody Guthrie stood for and what his positive accomplishments were. The movie carefully sidesteps central political issues. Indeed, how politically serious can a film about Guthrie and the farmworkers’ movement hope to be, when it is afraid to say “Communist” in any but a derisive tone? Sign-painter Guthrie’s insistence on red paint is a droll reference to the political conviction that dare not speak its name; but in the mincing context of Ashby’s film, it becomes indicative instead of Guthrie’s personal attraction to freedom to the exclusion of self-discipline and responsibility.
Early on, a square-dance band with which he is performing continues to play in precision while Woody leaps from the stage and forgets his instrument to join in the whirling dance. The remainder of the film is filled with similar responses by Guthrie to similar situations, an intended reflection of his exuberance for life and his insistence on staying in touch with the people. But these will involve increasing moral difficulty; conscience vs. expedience, nature vs. greed, social responsibility vs. family responsibility, self-destructive martyrdom vs. self-destructive sell-out. Life for Woody Guthrie emerges as a matter of bouncing back and forth among the polarities, never steering a true course through the middle. Ultimately, Ashby’s and Carradine’s Guthrie is not a man of conviction, nor even the ambivalent visionary implied by his sign-painting vocation and his talking-it-over “fortunetelling” avocation, but simply a person of great charm; and Carradine’s portrayal, which never gives the feeling of a complex whole man, is at its best in the simple, down-home wisdom and humble smile that make rich girl Pauline admit, “I’m really happy that I know you.” Yet even this charm, and the reduction of all Guthrie’s commitments and involvements to a simple—if not simplistic—affirmation of life and freedom, is not carried through. For a man of music whose “Don’t let nothin’ get you plumb down” is epigraph to the film, this Guthrie is astonishingly joyless. One has to wonder: if he didn’t take things lightly, and he didn’t take them all that seriously, what kind of man was he?
The film’s failure to get a fix on Guthrie is due not so much to the ambivalence sought by scenarist Getchell (who dealt with another singing wanderer in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) as to Hal Ashby’s waffling. Ashby is, to my mind, one of the most overrated directors in recent memory, a man who scarcely ever rises to the challenge he sets himself, whose boldness of thematic content is continually deflated by the most cautious, compromising, noncommittal style. Under his hand, some of the film’s most promising scenes become self-conscious moments of strained insignificance: a nicely conceived but ultimately ill-wrought talk between Guthrie and a disturbed man with “newsreels in my head”; Guthrie’s (and Ashby’s) labored hesitation over whether or not to take the guitar with him when he absconds to California (he doesn’t, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference); and the brief study of Guthrie atop a train car, picking out the first halting lines of “This Land Is Your Land,” a moment sure to endear Guthrie to a whole new generation of Americans as the man who wrote that airline jingle.
It’s more than fitting that the first credit after the film’s title is given to Haskell Wexler, for if Bound for Glory is a positive experience at all it is because of his sensitive, often ingenious cinematography. I suspect that all the film’s best moments—expressly photographic ones, and generally silent—are the result of decisions made by Wexler, not Ashby. In a week or two I will have forgotten most of the performances, the dialogue, and even the Guthrie music in Leonard Rosenman’s here-a-snatch-there-a-snatch adaptations. But Wexler’s magnificent images—the tangible dustiness of the overexposed opening scene; the oppressive dustcloud looming over the town, like Toledo in a Storm done dirty brown rather than rainy purple; the passage through the train tunnel, shrinking all the shot’s light to a tiny triangle before the screen goes black; the sudden shocks of the awful expanse of the farmworkers’ Hooverville, and, later, of the lush greenery of Pauline’s wealthy neighborhood; and the way that, after Woody is beaten and his guitar smashed by anti-union goons at a packinghouse, the whole world outside the factory is suddenly soft-focus—those things I’ll remember about Bound for Glory.
BOUND FOR GLORY
Direction: Hal Ashby. Screenplay: Robert Getchell, after the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Music: Woody Guthrie and traditional, adapted by Leonard Rosenman.
The players: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow