Among the slew of Hollywood movies that followed in the final days of the Vietnam War and used that as the subject, Rolling Thunder (1977) is a fascinating aberration. On the one hand, it flirts with serious issues and societal problems addressed in such post-Vietnam dramas as Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) but it is also a violent revenge film that exploits a Vietnam veteran as an avenging angel.
While various attempts were made to explore the psychological damage inflicted on the returning soldiers, either directly or indirectly, in such films as When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979), Cutter’s Way aka Cutter and Bone (1981) or Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972), Rolling Thunder presents its protagonist, Major Charles Rane (William Devane), and his close comrade Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) as the walking dead. While both appear to be physically fit and healthy, these two men have endured years of torture and abuse as POWs and now they are back home among family and friends who have no idea what they experienced…and don’t really want to know.
Rane and Johnny are no more alive than the ghoulish war veteran (Richard Backus) of Bob Clark’s Dead of Night aka Deathdream (1974), a revisionist version of “The Monkey’s Paw,” with the protagonist exacting revenge on the society that sent him to war. Rane even says at one point, “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m lookin’ at ya, but I’m dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me.”
The interesting thing about the screenplay of Rolling Thunder, based on a story by Paul Schrader and co-written by him and Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx, 1981), is that it quickly dispenses with the return home exposition in visual shorthand and terse dialogue before getting to the main story which is one man’s vigilante manhunt for some vicious scum who need killing (For those who haven’t seen the movie, there are spoilers ahead).
I first saw Rolling Thunder during its initial theatrical release in one of the three screens at the Classic Theatre in Athens, Ga. No longer in operation (it has since been demolished), the Classic was originally a single screen venue and then converted into one of the more awkward three-screen configurations I’ve ever seen. The main theatre remained but the left and right sides of the auditorium were converted to smaller theatres, leaving a long narrow entranceway to the main screen in the middle. The big budget films would play the main theatre but the smaller screens became hosts to a variety of indie features (You Light Up My Life, 1977), children’s movies (Benji,1974), and exploitation films like They Came from Within aka Shivers, (1975) and The Exterminator (1980). I remember expecting nothing out of the ordinary when I first went to see Rolling Thunder, assuming it would be a Death Wish imitation.
Nor was I particularly impressed with Devane as an actor; I had only seen him in the TV movie The Missiles of October (1974), where he played President Kennedy (perfect casting!), and Marathon Man (1976). As for Tommy Lee Jones, there was no awareness of this actor at all. I hadn’t yet seen him in Jackson County Jail (1976) or Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).
All I can say is once Devane is attacked in his home, his hand forced into the whirling blades of the sink garbage disposal and his wife and child murdered, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I didn’t bargain for this kind of intensity in an exploitation film which was how Rolling Thunder was marketed. My definition of a typical exploitation film is one that provides cheap thrills, maybe some unintentional laughs and some softcore sex action while occasionally introducing subject matter big budget Hollywood releases were reluctant to explore. The poster with Devane in dark sunglasses and a hook hand in motion seemed to promise that with the tagline “Major Charles Rane Has Come Home to War.” But this film, directed by Joe Flynn, was a different kind of animal.
I later had the opportunity to see Rolling Thunder again in an almost flawless 35mm print at The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta on November 2nd, 2010. It had lost none of its power or impact, despite its slow boil buildup that takes the time to develop its characters in the film’s first third, something most action or exploitation films can’t be bothered with anymore. And this is part of the reason why Rolling Thunder has staying power. Devane and Jones’ damaged, blank-faced “heroes” stick in the mind long after the film is over and all of the dust has settled. It is the film’s constant internal struggle between wanting to be a serious drama and a violent revenge thriller that gives it a disturbing power and tension that allow you to forgive its more obvious flaws.
Take, for example, the robbery/murders that establish the revenge motive that dominates the rest of the film. Would a gang of criminals really go to the trouble to break into a house for a measly $2,555 worth of silver dollars, a gift from a local bank to Rane? This scene not only establishes how moronic the villains are but also demonstrates their complete depravity and a justification for their total annihilation later. These nasty pieces of work are not grounded in reality but straight out of pulp fiction or graphic novels.
Despite the over-the-top nature of their villainy, however, these hombres are pure nightmare material. James Best, almost unrecognizable here as Texan, the sweating, grinning ringleader of the group, looks like some sort of faux Southern colonel and speaks with a Texas drawl. Even more frightening is Luke Askew as Automatic Slim, his second in command, another Vietnam vet, but this one has no sympathy for the major. His class/rank resentments are revealed in one telling line, ”Don’t give me any of that tough-guy officer sh*t. I was right there in ‘Nam with you ‘cept I was face-down in the mud while you guys were flying over.”
Then there is Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), the small town Texas girl who wore Rane’s ID bracelet all those years he was a POW. Her character is probably the most gratuitous and absurd aspect of the film but an expected component of any testosterone-fueled actioner aimed at the drive-in crowd. At first she seems to serve no purpose other than sexy window dressing as she flaunts her body in clinging blouses and tight jeans. Despite her first appearance at the town’s tribute to the major, she’s no wholesome homecoming queen and there is no mystique about her past which is a long, sad tale of losers and men who leave.
In contrast, Rane represents her fantasy of a real man – a strong, silent war hero – and offers possible salvation from a wasted life. When the major thanks her for wearing his bracelet, she tells him, “It’s the very least I can do. I’d like to do more.” And there’s no ambiguity about what the more is. As played by Haynes, Ms. Forchet is a walking sex bomb whose carnality is like a flashing neon sign. She brings this not-too-bright but instinctual wild girl to life – she’s cut from the same cloth as that other Texan hellion Janis Joplin. It makes sense – though it shouldn’t – when she quits her bar job on the spur of the moment to leap into a convertible with Rane and drive to Mexico in the middle of the night without knowing the real purpose behind the trip.
In many ways, Haynes is the film’s genuine exploitation object because she promises sex and nudity -which the audience is denied in any satisfactory way – and because she is used as a magnet for sleazeballs by Rane. The screenwriter and director are smart enough not to try to create a road movie romance between Rane and Linda because Rane is incapable of feeling anything, even sexual pleasure based on the scant evidence here. Yet Kane is not the strong, silent war hero type we’ve seen in other movies – he is a placid, methodical psychopath who intentionally places Linda in dangerous situations where she is almost raped or harmed more than once. She is simply a lure for Rane and a reason to bring his sharpened hook hand into action.
There is a point in Rolling Thunder, however, where the movie threatens for a brief moment to take a detour into the realm of Gun Crazy aka Deadly is the Female (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) and other fugitive lovers on the lam flicks. The duo is seen practice shooting at floating logs in a lake when Linda, who proves to be more than adept at using pistols and rifles, turns to Rane and asks, “Isn’t there anything more interesting to shoot at?” But, Linda is also the moral conscience of the film, who urges Rane to let the police go after the killers, saying “You know you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do any of this. We could just jump in a car, go 1,000 miles away.” In the end, there is no place for Linda in Rane’s world any more than there is a place in society for Rane.
Another brief detour in Rolling Thunder’s narrative involves Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), the family friend who became the lover of Rane’s wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards) in the major’s absence. Cliff is the one who first tries to convince Rane to join him in a search for the killers but when the latter goes off without him on a revenge mission, Cliff pursues him to Mexico through some inside help with the local police department. This part of the story plays out grimly and pointlessly as Cliff never locates Rane. Instead, he pursues his own leads to a deserted building near a cattle yard where he dies in a shootout with some of the killers he was chasing.
The film also won’t win any awards for depicting a positive view of Mexicans since most of the scenes across the border take place in barrooms and brothels where most of the men act like Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Screenwriter Schrader could even be accused of recycling some elements from his 1976 breakthrough hit Taxi Driver in such scenes as Rane getting in shape for his hunt for Texan and his homicidal gang. The explosive final showdown in the halls of a seedy whorehouse is clearly a reworking of the bloody finale of Taxi Driver though not quite as graphic or realistic in terms of the violence. In fact, according to a post by Devin Faraci at the Chud website, Schrader had a scene in an earlier draft of Rolling Thunder where Rane and Travis Bickle cross paths at a drive-in in Texas, making comparisons between the two characters unmistakable.
Despite the film’s inconsistencies, Rolling Thunder succeeds on so many other levels that it doesn’t matter. The entire cast is superb (look for Dabney Coleman and the late Paul A. Partain from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in minor roles) and William Devane gives what might be one of his finest performances here (Kris Kristofferson was reputedly offered the role first but dropped out prior to production). While many of his scenes in the movie have a quiet, intimate power such as his response to his wife’s confession of infidelity, the most memorable moment occurs when he explains how he survived as a POW. It’s one of the few times he reveals a spark of life or a glimpse into his psyche: “You learn to love the rope, that’s how you beat them. That’s how you beat people who torture you, you learn to love them and that way they don’t know you’re beating them.”
As for Tommy Lee Jones, he hits the right note of creepy detachment and zombie numbness from the get-go. It’s not until the climax that he becomes animated, jumping out of a prostitute’s bed (the actress is Cassie Yates of 1978’s FM and Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy) and cocking his guns like The Terminator. “What the f*ck are you doing?” she asks. “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people,” he replies with undisguised fervor.
When the two veterans get together away from their families, Rane and Johnny have little to say but seem to be telepathically communicating. Facing each other on a park bench and wearing sunglasses, they could be aliens in human disguise, right out of Men in Black. Director John Flynn captures these two characters’ alienation from the life they have returned to in short, succinct snapshots.
You know, it’s a shame Flynn has never received the praise or success he deserved despite the early promise of The Sergeant (1968, his directorial debut), The Outfit (1973, a tough, underrated contemporary noir) and this film. Maybe if he had scored a hit with any of these, he would have been given more promising A-list projects instead of the mediocre genre fare he was stuck with for the rest of his career such as Lock Up (1989, with Sly Stallone), Out for Justice (1991, with Steven Seagal) and his final film Protection (2001, with Stephen Baldwin).
Before his death at age 75 in 2007, Flynn revealed some information about the making of the film to Harvey F. Chartrand of Shock Magazine: “Paul Schrader’s script was reworked by a very fine writer – Heywood Gould. Back then, they were priming William Devane to be a big movie star. He is a wonderful actor, but he never became a star. Tommy Lee Jones was sensational in this picture. Rolling Thunder was his breakthrough film. Linda Haynes was extraordinary. Today, she is a legal secretary in Florida. I saw her when I was shooting Scam there in ‘93. We shot Rolling Thunder in San Antonio, Texas, in 31 days. We knew we were doing something fairly bold. The producer, Lawrence Gordon, told me to shoot the garbage disposal scene like open-heart surgery, make it as bloody as I possibly could. So I did. When we submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for a rating, we expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent movies in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating!…Arkoff bought it from Fox and released it almost uncut. He made one little trim in the garbage disposal scene.”
Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth also deserves a mention as he was an inspired choice for Rolling Thunder and visualizes the story as a contemporary noir. The interiors of Rane’s home are dark and drab with desaturated colors and seem to reflect Rane’s mindset. He prefers the darkness, having gotten used to it in his tiny prison cell as a POW. This is emphasized by the fact that he spends most of this time in his toolshed apart from his family when he returns home. When Rane’s wife is questioned about this, she says he likes it “because it’s cold, small and dark.” Nighttime scenes, especially the ones set in seedy border towns, mix neon lights with inky blackness to create some dangerous nocturnal landscape. Cronenweth would go on to be the DP on Cutter’s Way, Altered States, Blade Runner and Peggy Sue Got Married (in which he received an Oscar nomination for his work).
Originally Rolling Thunder was a project for 20th Century Fox but was abandoned after studio executives screened the film and took issue with its extreme violence (reputedly, the garbage disposal scene was more graphic). The final straw was a disastrous test screening, which according to screenwriter William Golden in his memoirs Adventures in the Screen Trade, was “the most violent sneak reaction of recent years… the audience actually got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present among them.” I’ll have to get hold of Goldman’s book to check for details. You have to wonder if the audience was composed of Vietnam vets who took offense at the film or what in particular triggered the anger. At any rate, Fox sold the film to American International who dumped it into saturation bookings in drive-ins and movie houses that catered to exploitation fare.
Quentin Tarantino has been a huge fan and advocate of Rolling Thunder for years as his following will attest. Not only did he name his short-lived distribution company after it – Switchblade Sisters and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond were a few of his cult offerings – but he also ranked it at number 5 on his top twelve film list for the prestigious Sight and Sound magazine/web site in 2002. To give you some idea of his eclectic list, Five Fingers of Death was number 11, Coffy starring Pam Grier was number 9, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was number one. But Tarantino wasn’t the only fan. Gene Siskel put it on his top ten list of 1977 and many critics and moviegoers have since discovered the film’s unique and uncompromising blend of serious drama and unapologetic exploitation.
The film’s ending, in particular, is strangely ambiguous and offers no real closure. While it builds to an action-packed climax in the tradition of the best revenge dramas, credibility is abandoned in favor of visual pyrotechnics. Both Rane and Johnny are shot enough times with high powered weapons to be dead five times over, yet they stagger out together at the end, leaving no survivors behind them. It’s the sort of “happy ending” that Schrader gave Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle, the psychopath, becomes the hero and is praised by the media. Here the war heroes have achieved their objective – mission over – but what are they returning to? What does the future hold for them? Nothing. Schrader’s concept of heroes and good guys doesn’t get more cynical than this and it transforms Rolling Thunder into an oddly compelling experience.
Rolling Thunder was unavailable in any format domestically for many years although you could stream the entire film on Hulu, Xfinity and other digital platforms prior to its inevitable analog release in 2011 by MGM in a no-frills “Limited Edition Collection” DVD. Much better is the Blu-ray upgrade released by Shout! Factory in 2013 which includes some nice extras including a fascinating “making of” featurette. Still, the best place to see Rolling Thunder is on a big movie theater screen if you ever get the opportunity.
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