'The American Hobo,' (2002) – Documentary

“The rhythm of the rails,” says Ernest Borgnine, who narrates the documentary, “is an enticing song for those who long to be far away.”

Bobb Hopkins’ "The American Hobo" documents the unique stories and adventures of real American hobos and examines the mysterious allure of the open track. “The rhythm of the rails,” says Ernest Borgnine, who narrates the documentary, “is an enticing song for those who long to be far away.”

American Hobo

The documentary sketches the history of the American hobo, from his roots in the Civil War through the Westward expansion of the nation, to the hardscrabble times of the Great Depression and beyond. We learn the origin of the name, “hobo,” and discover how the act of hitching a freight train developed into an American phenomenon.

But the heart of the film is the vivid commentary from actual hobos, all of whom have colorful road names, such as Santa Fe Bob, Connecticut Shorty, Side Door Pullman Kid, and Captain Dingo the Airborne Hobo. Country music legend, Merle Haggard, and acclaimed author, James Michener, also make an appearance, sharing their own accounts of life on the rails.

So what drives them? There is no single explanation. These hobos testify to a variety of motives – independence, adventure, thrill, escape, a test of survival, the lure of constant motion, the beauty of the land. … Whatever the impulse, the life of a hobo has charm and possibilities for greater personal freedom.

But one should not assume that hobos are isolated loners. The film carefully illustrates the distinctive sense of community shared by these freight travelers. An annual poetry and music festival, sponsored by the National Hobo Association, highlights the vibrant culture and solidarity among hobos. Indeed, the film teaches us that freight trains, more than mere objects of transport, are also conductors of creativity for those who wish to hop on.

The documentary is enhanced by a colorful soundtrack with captivating folk songs that speak to the hobo spirit in us all.

And although modern times have cast doubt on the future of the American hobo, the film maintains hope that, as long as rails exist and there are places to escape from, the hobo will always be with us.

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