Walk the Line: Fact and Fiction

We finally saw Walk the Line this afternoon and I can’t say enough good things about it. Phoenix and Witherspoon are spectactular; she in particular absolutely lights up the screen and if anything sings better than June Carter did in real life.

But there are a couple of very important characters missing from the movie that are central to the book on which it is based: (Cash’s Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words). The first of those characters is the most important in the book after Cash himself: God. I’m no more comfortable with deeply held religious convictions than most of my fellow urban-intellectual Johnny Cash admirers, but to ignore that aspect of him is to seriously misunderstand the man.

Cash’s book is dedicated to his father-in-law, Ezra Carter, husband to one of the original Carter Family trio (Maybelle) and brother to another (A.P.), “who taught me to love the Word.” In the introduction, he says,”If only one person can be saved from the death of drugs, if only one person turns to God through the story which I tell, it will all have been worthwhile,” and the first sentence of the book describes it as a “spiritual odyssey.” It is just that: the story of a deeply troubled, self-destructive man, coming to terms with himself and rebuilding his life through devotion to his God. It’s not necessarily a story most modern audiences are ready for, but that’s the reality, and glossing over it does Cash’s memory a disservice. The Man In Black himself explained, in part, “I wear the black for those who never read / Or listened to the words that Jesus said.”

A somewhat more disturbing mischaracterization involves Ray Cash, his father, a cotton sharecropper in Arkansas portrayed in the film as a hard and abusive man who never has a kind word for his son and whose rages terrorize the household. Of the real Ray Cash, his son says,

I have good memories of my daddy when I was a little boy. I always thought he was about the greatest man I ever knew, and I still do.

The smearing of the elder Cash’s name is worst in after Johnny’s older brother Jack is killed in a horrible sawmill accident. In the film, Cash’s father lashes out at his younger son (at one point actually saying “the wrong one” was killed). The 12-year-old boy gets the news when his father pulls up next to him in a car, roughly yanks him in, and demands, “Where have you been?” Much is made of this later in the film. However, according to Cash’s book,

Coming down the road in an A-model Ford came our preacher and my daddy. When I saw daddy, I knew something was wrong. The preacher pulled over and stopped the car.

“Throw away your fishin’ pole and get in,” daddy said….Finally my daddy managed to say, “Jack’s been hurt awful bad.”

To my mind, that’s an unforgivable distortion of the truth that would qualify as libel were the man still alive, all for the sake of some unnecessary dramatic tension.

It’s also worth noting that Cash’s daughters by his first wife are also pretty unhappy with the film, which portrays their mother — a woman who raised three children on her own as her husband toured the country, got drunk and popped pills, and had an adulterous affair — as a bit of a shrew. Cash is unsparing in describing the reasons for his divorce: “I had gone too far, stayed away too much.”

Walk the Line is an outstanding film and I hope it wins plenty of awards, but don’t let it deceive you about who this man really was.

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