Hal Ashby's “Bound for Glory,” made with an eye for the Bicentennial, failed dismally at the box office. Episodic in structure, the narrative concerns the myth of Woodie Guthrie, the great folk singer and union organizer.
It's hard to tell whether artistic and/or political reasons accounted for the movie's failure; after all, American movies about folksingers and labor activists have never been too popular.
Message-oriented, without any attempt to speak to contemporary viewers, “Bound for Glory” chronicles the life of an ordinary individual who became extraordinary. It begins in a small and impoverished Texas town, where Woodie works as a sign painter, and ends with his CBS Radio contract in New York, focusing on his labor agitation and politicization of radio programs.
The film shows, however, the tension between public and family life, and between showbusiness career and political commitment. Woodie succeeds as a public leader, but fails as a family man. When his suffering wife complains, “You're always tryin' to fix the world, but you don't care nothin' 'bout your family,” his response is mythic, “I can't sit still. I always feel like I should be somewhere else.”
In the lead role, Carradine, until then best-known for the TV series “Kung Fu,” gives a strong and credible performance. The role had been previously offered to Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, and even Bob Dylan.
“Bound for Glory” was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Robert Getchell), Editing (Robert Jones and Pembroke J. Herring), and Costume Design (William Theiss), and won two: Cinematography for Haskell Wexler and Original Song for Leonard Rosenman.
The big winner, however, was “Rocky” starring Sylvester Stallone, indicating that the public was in a nostalgic mood for old-fashioned and conventional fare.