Woody Guthrie embodies the spirit of the sixties thirty years too early. Like Dylan, the singer who so worshipped him, did at the beginning of his career, Guthrie used his music to express a staunch social conscience and insight his listeners to action. Like Dylan, Guthrie sometimes had trouble being as humane as his lyrics. He abandoned his wife and children amidst the devastation of the Great Depression to “find himself.” His family’s loss was the world’s gain, as Guthrie’s experiences across America inspired him to quit singing trite tunes about pretty girls and Jesus and start using his music to “kill fascists,” as he famously scrawled across his guitar.
I’m not sure how closely Hal Ashby’s 1976 film Bound for Glory, based on Guthrie’s autobiography of the same name, follows true history, but it has Guthrie (David Carradine in an understated yet powerful performance) leaving behind the Dust Bowl and a wife (Melinda Dillon) who belittles his dreams to follow them to California. Along the way he has experiences that shape the musical/political force he would become. He sees racism, redneck justice, the callousness behind Christian platitudes, abject poverty, and the violent chaos that lack of organization breeds firsthand. Upon visiting a shantytown, Guthrie meets Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox), a magnetic singer who instills in Guthrie the values of organization. Together they become pro-Union troubadours forced to keep steps ahead of brutish bands of union breakers. Politicized completely, Guthrie lives up to left-wing ideals even more staunchly than Bule, becoming the man that would inspire Dylan and so many others who preached the power of the people.
Although Bound for Glory is set in the thirties, it is very much a film of the seventies. However, unlike Popeye Doyle of The French Connection, Randall McMurphy of Cuckoo’s Nest, or others of their manly ilk, Carradine’s Guthrie does not possess an iota of cynicism, making Roy Neary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind his closest cinematic cousin of the decade. Guthrie’s humanity makes the cruel way he leaves his wife and kids almost forgivable. He cannot pass a person in need without handing over his last few coins.
Though music is not this film’s main concern, Carradine does get a change to sing quite a few songs, and he does so with a growly, Rock & Roll attitude alien to any music from so many decades earlier. In this way, it reminded me of another great seventies film: Quadrophenia, which assays the early sixties with an anachronistic attitude that makes it just as relevant to the time in which it was released.
Bound for Glory is also very much a film of seventies aesthetics. Haskell Wexler’s photography is superficially “antique” in its use of sepia tones, but the picture’s graininess, expansiveness, and magical lighting are very seventies (Bound for Glory would make a great double-bill with another Wexler-photographed historical drama from the seventies: Days of Heaven).
Twilight Time’s new blu-ray captures the visual magic of Bound for Glory quite well. Although the print isn’t in spectacular shape—white specks abound—the image is well defined and the original grain remains natural without becoming overbearing. The lack of extras aside from an isolated score track may be disappointing, but the feature is rich enough that you won’t really miss what isn’t here. Get it on Twilight Time Movies.com here.