The film opens with Guthrie (Carradine) struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl in Texas in 1936. He struggles to find work as a singer or sign painter, but comes up empty. Needing to support his wife Mary (Melinda Dillon) and their two children, Guthrie lights out to California, meeting people along the way and seeing the poverty and desperation afflicting so many in America in the '30s.
Guthrie finally makes it to California, only to find that it has its own poverty and deprivation, with desperate Dust Bowl immigrants picking vegetables for starvation wages while farm owners send club-wielding goons to stamp out union organizers. Together with Mary — aka “Memphis Sue” — and their friend Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox), Guthrie finds success as a singer on the radio, but he has to balance the demands of his job, and his wife's demands for support, against his social conscience.
Tropes used in this film:
- The Alleged Car: There are some sad-looking jalopies taking Okies to California. Woody befriends Luther Johnson after helping him fix the bent wheel of his sad old jalopy.
- Dances and Balls: Woody gets a gig at a square dance, which is interrupted when an enormous dust storm blows over the town.
- Deadly Dust Storm: A real hazard in the early parts.
- "Dear John" Letter: How Woody finds out that Mary has left him.
- Epic Tracking Shot: See SteadiCam below.
- Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene features Guthrie sitting around with his buddies in a small town in Texas. He also smarts off to a scout for an oil company.
- Gray Rain of Depression: After leaving the radio station, thus becoming jobless, Woody is shown singing to migrant workers while a pouring rain falls.
- Heroic BSoD: Woody is asked to help a local mother who has gone into catatonia and will not even drink after her daughter died of dust pneumonia. He manages to coax the woman back to alertness, and gets her to drink.
- Hobos: Woody meets many, including a whole box car full of them on the way to California. A hobo brawl ensues.
- Institutional Apparel: One scene features Woody singing to a group of prisoners in the typical striped uniform.
- Invulnerable Knuckles: Woody grabs his hand and winces with pain after punching a hobo during the brawl.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Well, he might not be dead. But after Woody and his hobo buddy manage to leap onto a train as it's pulling out of a station, the buddy says "Ain't this a son of a bitch? I never seen a train take off so—", before he's shot in the back by a railroad cop.
- Mad Artist: The discovery of art therapy is shown when Woody is approached by an escapee from an insane asylum, who says he sees "news reels" in his head. He complains of seeing images of people suffering from from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, to which Woody replies, "Ain't nuthin' wrong with your head!" Then Woody hands him paintbrushes and coaches him to paint the "newsreels" he sees in his head, so that the troubled man calms down and becomes an artist.
- Mooks: They tend to show up whenever Woody or anyone else tries to organize the migrant workers into unions. They tend to be wielding clubs.
- SteadiCam: This film features the first ever Steadicam shot, filmed by the camera's inventor, Garrett Brown. This shot, a three-minute take in which the camera swoops down to Guthrie and then follows him as he walks through a migrant worker camp, was revolutionary for Hollywood in 1976.
- Take This Job and Shove It: Woody's decision after the manager at the radio station tries to make him play safe, non-political songs that won't annoy the sponsors.
Connors: Was you planning on getting paid for this?Woody: Well, I was planning on getting paid for it.Connors: Well, just plan away, Guthrie. What am I supposed to do with this red bitch, anyways?Woody: Well... Why don't you... fold it five ways... and stick it where the sun don't shine.
- When Connors, the five-and-dime store owner refuses to pay Woody for painting a sign with a red background instead of white letters on a black background, Woody tells him off:
- Tantrum Throwing: After being forced by his radio station to provide a set list of non-controversial, non-political songs, Woody Guthrie trashes a store room.
- Train Song: "This Train is Bound for Glory", sung by Woody in the movie, gave the real Woody Guthrie the title of his autobiography, Bound for Glory, and thus gave a title to this film.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Guthrie's first wife was named Mary, and he did go out to California with the rest of the Okies. Pretty much everything else is fictional.
- Walking the Earth: Woody is compelled to do this from time to time, to reach out to the people. His wife angrily notes that he keeps leaving them to fend for themselves when he does it.