The further we get into the digital age and the less the actions or thoughts of individuals seem to match the weight of their intentions, the harder it is to believe Woody Guthrie was real and not some myth like Odysseus or Babe The Blue Ox. He would have been 100 this year, and even though he was a man of the modern world, with each passing year his legacy looms in a way that transcends time and era. He has become an “historic figure” sloughing off the real dust of the depression and exchanging it for the sands of time. When one tries to find peers in recent history, names like Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind. This was a man who made a lasting difference for all people by simply being himself. His accomplishments as a singer, painter, organizer, philosopher and public persona are hard to fathom. In a time when bare subsistence was on the minds of most citizens, Woody was looking to a higher calling.
With a subject as compelling and important, a cinematic portrayal might seem like a natural, yet Bound For Glory remains the only Hollywood stab at Woody’s life. Luckily it is highly successful. Filmed in 1976, Bound For Glory represents a high-water mark in the filmic depictions of the American landscape. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler won an Academy Award for his work on this film and it is easy to see why. Beginning in Pampa, Texas in 1936, Woody and his young family are victimized by the dust-bowl conditions. Wexler captures the gritty reality of life in a dust storm with uncanny accuracy. Everything is covered in a gauzy haze that has you reaching for a glass of cool water for relief. Woody realizes he must leave for California to try to secure a living for his family. It is on his journey to California that his sense of conscience and social justice start to come into clearer focus. Once in the golden state he sees the deplorable conditions afforded migrant workers, and the hypocrisy of institutions, governmental, social and religious. Woody begins to learn his trade as a singer/songwriter and heads off to change the world. While the film has an epic quality, seeming to cover years and countless changes, it actually examines a very short period of Guthrie’s life. Director Hal Ashby carefully dissects the birth of a social conscience. When Woody leaves Texas, he is a simpler man, trying to provide for his family. By the end of the movie (maybe a year or two in real time) he is a fearless advocate of social justice, willing to starve or take a beating for what is right. This is a remarkable achievement for a movie: to accurately portray an intellectual awakening, to show the cognitive and emotional processes involved in deciding to do the right thing. It is fairly easy to talk about but it is harder to show in actions.
Starring the mercurial actor David Carradine as Woody, he seems to essentially be playing himself. Known as a free spirit, Carradine brings an almost mystical calm to Woody’s character, embodying the reality of the individual, but also giving flesh to more lyrical and esoteric aspects of the man. Carradine floats through the scenes with a hard to define sense of purpose. He is entirely believable as Guthrie, a man who mystified even those closest to him. What exactly drove the man will never be known. He had artistic ambitions, but had an even more driving sense of purpose that informed his actions. Like Twain, like Einstein, how he went from a garden variety human to the kind of hyper-evolved uber-mensch we may never understand. It may be enough that Hal Ashby’s wonderful movie allows us to glimpse part of the process. At the end of the film, Woody climbs atop a freight train with his guitar and we see him setting off to make his mark on a world crying for justice. It is hard to not well up during this final image, because, like the man himself, the idealism that dwelled within his breast seems to recede further into the rear view mirror of history with each passing year.