Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 25, 2012)
More than three decades after its release, Bound for Glory seems destined to be the most difficult part of a trivia question: “Name all five Best Picture nominees from 1976”. Most fans will be able to rattle off four of the five without much trouble, as they’re all legitimate classics: All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Oscar-winner Rocky
And then there’s Glory, a film that seems to almost literally be forgotten. A while back, I ran a thread on a discussion board that asked folks to pick the 1976 BP nominee they thought should’ve won. The Big Four each received dozens of votes; Glory got one, and most people commented they’d never seen it.
Look at the attention each of the 1976 flicks gets on IMDB. In april 2012, of the Big Four, Taxi Driver has the most ratings with more than 231,000. Rocky is second at around 150,000, while both Network hits 50,000 and Men ends up around 41,000.
What about Glory? It’s mustered a mere 2236 votes!
At least that’s better than The Turning Point, the “forgotten film” among 1977’s nominees, but it’s still pretty miserable. With a well-known director in Hal Ashby – fresh off a hit via 1975’s Shampoo - it seems somewhat amazing to me that Glory maintains such a low historical profile.
But “low profile” beats “no profile”, I suppose, and I figured it was time that I saw it to round out my Oscar vocabulary. Glory starts in Texas circa 1936 and tells us the tale of folk singer Woody Guthrie (David Carradine). Smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Woody demonstrates an amazing ability to read people, determine their problems, and lift their spirits.
But that doesn’t pay the rent. Woody finds it hard to land steady work, so eventually, he sets out on his own and heads to California to raise some funds.
Along the way, Woody encounters a slew of colorful characters – and a whole lot of injustice. Both influence Woody but he doesn’t move toward his eventual career until he meets radio singer Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox). This leads Woody into the recording studio and on the path toward success as a musician as well as a leader of the people.
I suppose one can come up with many thoughts about why Glory lacks the fame associated with its Oscar-nominated counterparts, but here’s my theory: it’s just not remotely as good. This certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s not in the same universe as the other four films.
Three of those were gritty and dynamic; they seemed to break from standard filmmaking to varying degrees. Rocky felt more traditional, but it boasted a real heart and spirit that allowed it to separate itself from the pack.
As for Glory, it’s a more than respectable piece of work, but it just doesn’t stand out as anything especially memorable. Some of its problems relate to its length. Glory may run for nearly two and a half hours, but that doesn’t mean it has 148 minutes of story to tell.
Actually, that’s not true. I believe that Guthrie’s life boasts more than enough worthwhile material to pack into one 148-minute film, but Glory doesn’t take full advantage of the potential. It focuses on his formative years as an artist, and I respect that. Following his rise to prominence is a perfectly appropriate choice.
If only Ashby’d stayed with a perfectly appropriate running time of 100 minutes or so, then Glory would be more satisfying. It starts off pretty well, but it begins to drag along the way, especially once Woody gets involved in the music business. Themes tend to repeat themselves, and the film moves so slowly that we start to lose interest. While we should build to an effective climax, we find ourselves bogged down in repetition and some TV movie sentimentality.
That might be my biggest criticism of Glory: too often it feels like something made for “ABC Sunday Night at the Movies”. It rarely comes across as particularly deep or rich, and the score hurts it. The film adapts Guthrie’s songs but renders them somewhat impotent via peppy campfire performances. One of the movie’s potential strengths ends up as a weakness.
At least Glory features strong performances. I was surprised to see that Carradine received no Oscar nomination for his work as Guthrie. The actor creates a dry but engaging turn. He packages Guthrie’s combination of cynicism, determination and idealism in a believable way and allows the character to transcend some of the movie’s problems. Without question, Carradine becomes the best thing about the film.
Not that Glory is – or ever really threatens to turn into – a bad movie. It’s just a fairly ordinary one, and that makes it a disappointment given its Oscar-nominated pedigree.