Bound for Glory (1976): Hal Ashby Biopic of Woody Gauthrie, with Oscar Winning Cinematography by Haskell Wexler

Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, made with an eye for the Bicentennial, failed dismally at the box office.

The script is credited to Robert Getchell, who based the tale on the memoirs of Woody Guthrie, but Hal Ashby and his editors later contributed extensively to the scenario.

Many hostorians don’t like this film because most of its characters are heavily fictionalized, and the tale is inaccurate in terms of  both songs and musical events.

Episodic in structure, and overlong in screen time (147 minutes), the narrative tries to tackle both the “real” life and 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.

For starters, the movie ends with Guthrie singing his most famous song, “God Blessed America” (retitled “This Land Is Your Land”), on his way to New York. In reality, however, the song was composed in New York in 1940 and nearly forgotten by him until five years later.

Message-oriented, without any attempt to speak to contemporary viewers who have never heard of him, “Bound for Glory” chronicles the life of an ordinary individual who became extraordinary.

The story begins in a small and impoverished Texas town, where Woody 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–and rejected by–Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and even Bob Dylan himself.

What stands out is the evocative imagery of Haskell Wexler, who deservedly won the Best Cinematography Oscar.

Oscar Alert

“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.


Profuced by Robert F. Blumofe and Harold Leventhal

Directed by Hal Ashby

Screenplay: Robert Getchell


David Carradine as Woody Guthrie

Ronny Cox as Ozark Bule

Melinda Dillon as Mary/Memphis Sue

Gail Strickland as Pauline

John Lehne as Locke

Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Slim Snedeger

Randy Quaid as Luther Johnson