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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10 Responses to Walk the Line: Fact and Fiction

  1. bobhowe says:

    It’s interesting that they expunged Cash’s Christian convictions from the film, especially given the supposed increase of Christian purchasing power at the box office (The Passion of the Christ and Narnia).

    I concur that both Phoenix and Witherspoon were electrifying every moment they were on screen.

    • ken says:

      I think it depends who you’re marketing to. Remember that Columbia dropped Johnny Cash in the 80s because he no longer appealed to commercial country fans; between his divorce, his progressive position on a lot of issues, and his open disdain for the Nashville establishment, he had little appeal to fans of “wholesome” country music. His comeback in the 90s had nothing to do with those fans, and everything to do with young people and hipsters catching on to his music.

      In one scene in the movie, a Columbia executive warns him against recording live at Folsom, saying, “Your fans are Christians — they don’t want to hear you singing to murderers and rapists and trying to make them feel good.” Cash responds, “Then they’re not Christians.” I don’t think a viewpoint like that would win you many fans among the Mel Gibson crowd.

  2. bobhowe says:

    I don’t think a viewpoint like that would win you many fans among the Mel Gibson crowd.

    Good point. I remember listening to “Singin’ In Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” a very mild anti-war song, and thinking “I bet the NASCAR crowd don’t pump quarters in the jukebox to hear this little ditty.”

  3. I was wondering when you would finally be commenting on this film. Thanx, maybe I’ll see it.

  4. shunn says:

    Late to the party

    Getting here late, but still fascinated. Yeah, it had occurred to me that there wasn’t very much God in the movie, though I was caught up of course and didn’t really miss It.

    I was much more curious about the portrayal of his father. Correct me if I’m wrong, but at the end of the At Folsom Prison, you can hear the warden (or whomever) making announcements for a couple of minutes, and among other things he points out the presence of Ray Cash at the concert. Am I remembering that correctly? In the film, I was waiting to see Ray there with him at Folsom, fruitlessly.

    • ken says:

      Re: Late to the party

      Yes, you definitely hear Ray Cash introduced at the end of the Folsom concert. I imagine that was left out of the film because it would not have fit in with the film’s libeling of his father, which is flatly contradicted in almost every respect by Johnny Cash’s own statements about his father, by what others in his family said about him, and by history (such as the Folsom recording).

      • shunn says:

        Re: Late to the party

        Just listened to it again. The warden says:

        There’s a gentleman here I’d like to have stand up, a very, very proud man. He used to be many years ago a Badland farmer in Dyess, Arkansas, but he’s Johnny Cash’s daddy, Mr. Ray Cash.

        I remembered being struck the first time I heard it by the sort of apparent affection implied by that word daddy.

        You would think the Johnny Cash story would be interesting enough without an evil father artifically imposed on it to provide some strange sort of “character arc.”

  5. rube says:

    Johnny Cash got deeply religious after he got over his addiction, and preached a lot. Finally he said something along the lines of “Preaching gospel to people is not only a waste of time, but also rude. People will usually find God on their own” – that’s not verbatim, though.

    • ken says:

      He was religious his entire life, raised in the church and never far from it. During his years of drugs and drinking, he was running not only from religion but from his entire life, and he ascribed his recovery to God and June Carter.

      I did respect his combination of faith and tolerance.

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