Voices, faces tell sad tales of teens 'Riding the Rails' Movie reviews

March 27, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Riding the Rails" is the absorbing story of the teen-agers who took to riding boxcars during the Great Depression, as told in their own words some 60 years later.

As a heretofore forgotten piece of social history, "Riding the Rails" should be compulsory viewing for all Americans. But as its subjects relate their individual stories, "Riding the Rails" swiftly transcends its role as a historical document and becomes a deeply moving testament to the human capacity for suffering and survival.

Although the image of the boxcar hobo is a common piece of iconography from the Depression, most filmgoers probably don't know that most of the 250,000 people riding the rails were teen-agers who left their homes (not always voluntarily) to find work in the cities of the East or the fruit orchards of the West.

Some, like John Fawcett, lit out purely for adventure. Some, like Jim Mitchell and Peggy De Hart, left after arguments with their parents. Others, like Clarence Lee, were made to leave by their parents. "It hurt very badly," the Louisiana native recalls in the film. "I didn't have it in my mind to leave until he told me: 'Go fend for yourself. I cannot afford to have you around any longer.' "

The strength of "Riding the Rails," which is set to the songs of Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Doc Watson, lies in the voices of the seven people who recall, with searing honesty, the adventure, deprivation and loneliness they found on the road.

Filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell put out a call for the recollections of the young transients of the 1930s and received more than 3,000 letters in response; some of them are quoted here. But it's the faces of "Riding the Rails" -- of Rene Champion, remembering the sight and smell of the last train he ever jumped; of De Hart, reading from a letter she wrote to her mother from the road in 1938; of Lee, burying his tear-streaked face in his hands when he recounts a bout of homesickness -- that will linger with filmgoers long after the movie ends.

'Riding the Rails'

Directed by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell

Released by Artistic License Films


Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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