BURIED DEEP in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, along with the stories about the two-headed goat, the 970-lb. man who was buried in a piano case, and the man who ate 22 bananas in 16 seconds, is an entry describing a so-called "Suicide Tree." The tree had a large taproot, which for some unknown reason grew in a circle around its own base. As the tree grew this noose was drawn tighter and tighter, until the tree grew so large that it strangled itself and died.
Film biographies tend to fall victim to a similar paradox. Ideally, a film biography should be historically accurate, entertaining, and provide some critical insight into its subject. There is an obvious tension between these three elements, and few directors and screenwriters are able to achieve the delicate, necessary dynamic. Indeed, most directors opt for one of the goals--usually that of producing an entertaining film--and address the other two only cursorily, if at all; while entertaining, the results of such efforts are little more than loosely-based fictional treatments. Diana Ross was wonderful to watch and hear in Lady Sings the Blues, but the character bore only a slight resemblance to Billie Holliday. And the makers of Night and Day indulged in a luxurious piece of miscasting when they selected strapping sex symbol Cary Grant to star as a wimpish, homosexual composer named Cole Porter. It's encouraging, then, to find that in Bound For Glory, based on Woody Guthrie's autobiography of the same name, screenwriter Robert Getchell and director Hal Ashby have tried to satisfy the often conflicting demands of entertainment and history, and that, by and large, they have succeeded.
As history, the film is both more accurate and more coherent than the wonderfully rambling, episodic book on which it is based. Woody had an active imagination and appreciated a good story; the fact that an incident had never really occurred apparently did not always prevent him from retelling it. Not too surprisingly, he also tends to leave out important details that point up a darker, less appealing side of his character.
THE FILM opens in 1936 in the dust-bowl town of Pampa, Texas, where Woody is earning just enough money as a sign painter and square dance fiddler to keep his family from starving to death. Pampa is an oilboom town gone bust, a grim, Depressionera morning-after the gala twenties, when the oilmen and farmers came in droves. Now the money and water are gone, the land parched and worthless. All that's left is the dust--huge, billowing black clouds of destruction and death rumbling across the prairie. Production designer Michael Haller's re-creation of a Pampa dust-storm stunningly conveys the awesome power that often terrorized the dust bowl's inhabitants. When Woody sings in "The Great Dust Storm," "We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom," it's easy to understand why.
But word has it in Pampa that there's a promised land at the edge of this desert--California, where work is plentiful and the fertile valleys are filled with citrus groves voluptuous with fruit. California--"a place for some real nice livin'!" Woody, who never was able to stay still in one place too long, decides to make the pilgrimage and, sneaking out on his family, he hits the road. (Significantly, in the chapter of his book recounting his departure for California, Guthrie fails to mention his family--and his desertion of them--at all.)
Woody meets all sorts of people on his travels--rich epicureans who proudly describe the delicious meals they've eaten in various parts of the country (Woody, who hasn't eaten in a couple of days, observes sardonically that "The more ya eat, the more ya shit"), truck drivers, boxcar bums and rod riders, and, of course, fellow Dust Bowl refugees. Both Woody and the viewer are seeing the hidden, dark side of the American dream--the poverty and misery of the unemployed masses contrasts starkly with the affluence of the epicureans and of the priest who refuses him charity on the ground it will weaken Woody's spirit.
Woody's alienation is only exacerbated by his experiences in California, which is, as promised, a land of pastures of plenty. But the source of this wealth is the labor of thousands of poorly paid, migrant workers who are kept in line by hired goons and their competition with each other for scarce field jobs. While living with the migrant workers, Woody meets up with Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox), a country singer and union organizer (Bule actually is a composite of several musician-agricultural workers' union organizers Woody knew during that time) who gets Woody a steady job at a local radio station. For a while Woody divides his time between radio performances and union organizing, eventually saving up enough money to buy a house and bring his family out to California. But soon after this Woody, whose repertoire by now includes a large number of political protest songs, runs into censorship problems and gets himself fired. His wife, Mary (sensitively played by Melinda Dillon), has endured years of poverty (and loneliness) on the Texas plains, and seeks security desperately; she can view Woody's stubborn refusal to compromise and his frequent wanderings from home only as selfish personal indulgences, and she finally picks up the kids and leaves for Pampa, never to return. Woody, on the other hand, eventually pulls up stakes and sets off on a cross-country tour, singing, writing, and organizing.
IT SEEMS POINTLESS to speculate as to whether David Carradine, who plays Woody in the film, succeeds in capturing the "real" Woody Guthrie. Carradine doesn't really look or sound very much like the real Woody, and at times he seems so cooly laid back that it's hard to see in him the burning curiosity, wanderlust and stubborn passion for justice that come through so clearly in Woody's songs and writings. Ultimately, though, Carradine's Woody succeeds because he combines Woody's optimism and stubborn wise-ass anti-authoritarianism, creating an interesting, sympathetic but not overly worshipful portrait. Carradine's Guthrie (for whom Ashby and Getschell must of course share the credit) is believable, both human and fallible: his compassion for the working man contrasts ironically with his insensitive, irresponsible handling of personal relationships.
The film's technical aspects complement the carefully understated acting and direction. Haskell Wexler's cinematography is skillful and at times breathtakingly beautiful, but it is never vulgar or flashy. The sets are simple and the props few; Ashby avoids mounting exhibits of United Artists' vast collection of antique furniture. Bound For Glory is accurate but not pedantic, entertaining but not slick. Like Woody's songs, Bound For Glory is deceptively simple; the surface simplicity serves only to mask the care and skill involved in its production. Besides, as Pete Seeger said in his forward to the book, "Any damn fool can get complicated."
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