❉ This week: Hal Ashby’s underrated tour-de-force of film-making.
“Intimate on a narrative level and epic in visual scope, the 1976 film Bound for Glory is a supreme piece of American film-making, centering on one of the country’s most despairing time periods, filled with all of the small but vital humanistic touches that defined Ashby’s best work.”
Hal Ashby was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of the 1970s, and one of his best works is a film that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as some of his other, more iconic pictures, like Harold & Maude, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Being There, and Coming Home. Intimate on a narrative level and epic in visual scope, the 1976 film Bound for Glory is a supreme piece of American film-making, centering on one of the country’s most despairing time periods, filled with all of the small but vital humanistic touches that defined Ashby’s best work.
David Carradine delivered nothing less than a tour de force performance as folk singer Woody Guthrie, who traveled the country looking for fortune and fame during the Great Depression, continually finding himself at odds with the world around him. Robert Getchell’s screenplay, which was based on Guthrie’s 1943 novel, was carefully considered in all areas, with a big central performance for Carradine to sink his teeth into, while still allowing for the supporting roles to feel fully fleshed out.
With a colorful ensemble including Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid, and John Lehne, there’s never a dull moment in the story, even if the film moves at a purposefully languid clip. But because Ashby took his time with the pace of the film, you get allthe more invested in Guthrie’s plight and his desire to get a leg up in the world; the sequence where he gets to show his family their new house is nothing short of misty-eyed touching without veering into the overly sentimental.
There’s a dreamy quality to much of this film, or maybe call it a beautifully lit nightmare; the dichotomy between aesthetic splendor and the sad realities of the Great Depression in Bound for Glory could easily be compared to the work done by Steven Soderbergh in his underrated drama King of the Hill. This was the first movie to employ the use of the Steadicam, with inventor Garrett Brown handling the operation, and thelegendary Haskell Wexler calling the shots as cinematographer; he’d win the Oscar for his bronzed and vintage-sheen work.
Bound for Glory also features a few bar fights and train brawls that are some of the best staged sequences of cinematic beat-downs that I’ve ever seen; punches fly with vigor in this movie! There’s also a fascinating hobo component to the movie, with a majority of the picture highlighting the hardscrabble life of desperate men living in one of the most desperate of times in America; pair it with Robert Aldrich’s much more action-oriented Emperor of the North (Pole) for a fun double feature. And much like Emperor, while beautiful looking, there’s an emotional harshness that permeates most of the scenes in Bound for Glory. The film was released in theaters in December of ’76 as an Oscar hopeful, and it would be nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Editing, but would only take the golden statues for Wexler’s groundbreaking photography and for Best Original Score. Time may have forgotten about Bound for Glory, but viewers shouldn’t, and it’s a further reminder of the genius that was Hal Ashby.
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❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.