Stars – David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Randy Quaid, M’ Emmet Walsh
Director – Hal Ashby
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com
There are two wonderful accomplishments in Bound For Glory. One you have seen and the other had never been seen before. About an hour and ten minutes into the film David Carradine as Woody Guthrie puts his guitar down and gets up out of his shambles. He’s living in a Hobo Jungle, a loose collection of homeless people and their families who have thrown together a make shift hodge podge village of wooden lean-tos, tents, cars, sleeping bags, stoves , beds, and chairs. He gets up and starts to wander through the crowd. There is something going on up ahead that has caught everyone’s attention. He works his way around a few people. Woody sidesteps some lady and a few others who don’t see him coming. He’s kind of threading the needle through the crowd, bobbing and weaving his way through. And we are coming right along with him. Yes it’s a longish take but it’s also remarkably even. We’re able to seemingly walking right alongside Woody as he manages the crowd. Not only is this a very smooth shot but it is a really narrow and changing lane that we are following along. We feel the excitement of making our way through the crowd to see what all the fuss it. He dodges and we dodge. He kind of ambles along and so do we. We see what he sees but most unusually we feel the same kind of walk he does as we both navigate the Hobo Jungle. There had never been a shot like this before. Haskell Wexler the Cinemaphotographer on this film was very accomplished but this was truly amazing. A brand new invention, The Steadicam made its debut in this film. It’s a harness that fits over the operator that has a kind of gyroscope gizmo that keeps the camera level. John Carpenter would make extensive use of this same device in his movie Halloween (1978) just two years later. I can vividly remember the feeling in the theater when I first saw this. It was jaw dropping. Eliminating the need to lay down cumbersome tracks and allowing the camera to glide smoothly basically anywhere a man could walk created a brand new chapter of opportunity in filmmaking.
The other thing that Hal Ashby’s film does is use Woody Guthrie’s life story to let us experience what the depression was like. Instead of giving us anything like a standard biopic of a musician Hal wanders through America to let us see first hand what this devastating financial calamity has done to the people. He follows Woody’s trek and we follow along. It is not a straight line at all and few directors can meander around as well as Ashby. We meet Guthrie who is a sign painter by trade when he does work. However the guy comes across more like a Bohemian expect he has no Bohemia to be a part of. He writes folks songs but more than that he seems to have this need to “Lit out” just like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn years earlier. We learn how to hop trains and how to evade the mean railroad cops. Woody meets an oddball yet entirely loveable collection of people on his trip to California. We see first hand the tremendous disappointment that meets so many people who sacrificed everything to travel there. The rich orchards of hope become filthy dirty encampments of people who are paid so little to pick fruit that they can barely afford to eat.
Woody is deeply affected by this. He falls in with a rabble rousing charismatic singer played by Ronny Cox who performs impromptu musical sets at these fruit picking camps while preaching about joining the union. Even as Woody finds fame as a singer with a radio show he still feels this powerful restlessness. Regardless of how many times he abandons his family or lets down the folks who gave him his job singing on the radio he just has to run off to hang out among the people. Ashby’s languid seemingly aimless pace lets us get right up close to the people like Randy Quaid who puts his family and possessions in a car and heads out for the Sunshine State. They sleep and hang out in the car while he lines up for the possibility of working in the orchards. The pay is a few pennies for every full basket. It’s terrible and all it does is breed squalor for the pickers and fortunes for the orchard owners. The hopelessness turns to anger and Woody latches onto that in song.
David Carradine (Kung-Fu) brings a very realistic laid back tone to his performance. He actually plays guitar and sings. He almost looks too comfortable just leaning against something and soaking up people’s stories or telling his own in song. Ultimately he and Ashby seem much more enthralled with Guthrie’s ability to empathize with the people than his abilities as a singer. At two and a half hours Bound For Glory is in no hurry to get anywhere. The point is to soak up that atmosphere. Wexler’s camerawork is wonderful. At times there is a haze over things. Maybe it is dust in the air or a filter on the lens. It feels like many years ago but the yearning of the people we meet for a fair shake resonates just as if it was today. So many little details are right on the money. The Depression years were a blight on this country and took a real toll on the population. This film puts you right in the dirt. We see the dust bowls with ground so hard and parched you can’t grow anything. We see people cramped together and run out of hope. But then there is Woody’s smile and his faith in people. He learns to extol joining the union and banding together for a better wage and way of life. There is a blurring of the practical and the political. Woody Guthrie the man seemed to let down so many that were close to him yet he was a beacon for so many he did know. Bound For Glory is a powerful film. The technical achievements and entire look of the production are exemplary filmmaking.
Video – 1.85:1
The hues and textures of the look of this film are carefully executed. This presentation brings all of that out with no shortcoming at all. The tones of the colors, the feel of the dust in the air are so realistic. There is a languid feel that permeates every frame and every pore of the actors that are photographed. The technical marvel of the use of the Steadicam used here can not be overstated. Wexler and Ashby accomplish their goal of showing us what life looked like then but they also give us a real feel for it.
Audio – 1.0 DTS-HD MA with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easy enough to understand. We hear some nice relaxed guitar oriented themes that echo through the film. Sometimes other instruments carry those phrases. It’s a simple track that does not overwhelm the actors or interfere with the meandering pace of the film that director Ashby carefully maintains. We’re given a nice mix that is intentionally unobtrusive.
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score and effects track, Original theatrical trailer
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent