Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rolling Thunder (1977)

The latest Noir of the Week comes from the pen of Hard-boiled novelist Wallace Stroby

It would be easy to mistake John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder for just another ‘70s vigilante revenge drama. On one level it’s no mistake at all. It has all the trappings of the genre: When a Vietnam vet’s family is slaughtered by brutal criminals, he guns up and sets off on a bloody vengeance spree. But on another level, and in context, it now feels like one of the most significant films of the decade.

Directed by journeyman Flynn (The Outfit, Best Seller), Rolling Thunder was clearly riding the tide of violent revenge films that were filling American theaters in the mid-’70s. Three years earlier, Michael Winner’s Death Wish had become one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and ushered in a new cinema of vengeance. But Rolling Thunder also had a more artistic pedigree. Its original screenplay was by Hollywood enfant terrible Paul Schrader, then riding high on his scripts for The Yakuza, Obsession, and 1976’s Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. When Rolling Thunder was released, the posters proclaimed it “Another shattering experience from the author of Taxi Driver.”

The two films do have some shared themes, specifically a Vietnam vet who turns homicidal on return to the U.S. But Travis Bickle, the troubled loser of Taxi Driver, is a far cry from Rolling Thunder’s Maj. Charles Rane, an Air Force officer who’s spent seven years in a hellish POW camp after being shot down over North Vietnam (“Rolling Thunder” was the code name for U.S. air operations during the war).

As Rane, William Devane (Marathon Man, Family Plot) gives a measured and finely nuanced performance, one of the best of his career. Returning to his Texas hometown (the film is set in 1973), Rane finds a young son who doesn’t remember him, and a wife who’s fallen in love with another man. The only one who understands him is his fellow POW, Sgt. Johnny Vohden (a memorable early performance by Tommy Lee Jones). Vohden is so twitchy and lost he makes Rane seem well-adjusted. When the plane that’s brought them home touches down at the airport where Vohden’s wife and family are waiting, he confides, “Major, I sure do hate to face all them people.” “Then put your glasses on, John,” Rane tells him. Sunglasses in place, they take their first steps out onto the tarmac, and back into a world they hardly recognize.

As disciplined and stoic as he tries to be, Rane is also working through some major issues. After seven years in a cell, he can’t reacclimate to his old life. He sleeps in a backyard workshed because, as his wife tells their little boy, it’s “small and quiet out there.” In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Rane demonstrates how he was tortured by his captors, persuading his wife’s lover, a local policeman, to participate in the reenactment by painfully hoisting Rane’s bound arms behind him. "You learn to love the rope,” Rane tells him. “That’s how you beat them."

Things get worse. Honored as a hometown hero, Rane is given a new Cadillac convertible and 2,555 silver dollars, one for each day he spent in captivity. When they hear of this windfall, a quartet of depraved criminals, led by The Texan (James Best) and Automatic Slim (‘70s icon Luke Askew), invade Rane’s home and kill his wife and son. Refusing to give up the coins, Rane is brutalized and, in the film’s most exploitative scene, has his right hand fed into the kitchen garbage disposal.

Once out of the hospital, Rane “rearms” with a prosthetic hook he files to razor sharpness. Sawing down the barrels of the shotgun given him by his son, he starts to plot his revenge, reluctantly aided by the young waitress who wore his POW bracelet (a vibrant Linda Haynes). Eventually, he recruits the newly reupped Vohden, who’s happy to flee the stifling confines of civilian life. When Rane reveals he’s found the hideout of the men who killed his family, Vohden pauses only for a moment. “I’ll just get my gear,” he says. Armed to the teeth, the two head across the border, and into a bloodbath of Peckinpah-esque proportions at a Mexican brothel, in a scene that also echoes the finale of Taxi Driver.

But while the original story and first draft of Rolling Thunder were written by Schrader, much of the film’s character development was provided by then-first-time screenwriter Heywood Gould (Fort Apache, The Bronx), who was brought in to do a polish and rewrite. The scenes between Rane and his son, and the torture reenactment are all Gould’s (Schrader’s original draft is available on the web).

Its exploitative elements aside, there’s no denying the film’s primitive power. Rane’s alienation feels real. After his war experiences, the average Americans he meets - as Nick Nolte’s fellow Vietnam vet Ray Hicks pronounces in 1978’s Who'll Stop the Rain - are “Martians.” Rane is almost happy to cut loose from society and set out on the vengeance trail. The murder of his family leaves him feeling less traumatized than disrespected. His vendetta is as much about pride as justice.

Moodwise, Rolling Thunder echoes some of the “disaffected vet” noir films of the post-WWII era, such as George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948). As shot by Jordan Cronenweth (Cutter's Way, Blade Runner), the border towns of Rolling Thunder are noirish hellholes full of neon lights and deep shadows. The villains, in particular Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), are truly frightening. Askew’s Automatic Slim is a tough, unrepentant career criminal and Vietnam vet himself, who looks quite up to the task of killing both the heroes. ”Now don’t give me any of that officer hard shit,” he tells Rane. “’Cause I was right there in ‘Nam with the rest, ‘cept I was lying face-down in the mud while you cats was flying over.”

Schrader’s original script ends with a mass slaughter that makes Taxi Driver seem restrained, with Rane and Vohden gunning down criminals and innocents alike. The ending of the film, reworked by Gould, is no less bloody, though slightly more conventional (Schrader’s original script also features a scene - perhaps tongue in cheek - in a Texas drive-in where Rane and Travis Bickle eye each other from their respective cars while slugging drinks and watching “Deep Throat.”)

Unlike most films of its type, Rolling Thunder is deliberately paced. It moves slowly at first, taking its time to show Rane’s attempts to readjust. “I had everything worked out,” he tells an Air Force psychologist (Dabney Coleman). “But nothing’s going the way I planned.” Anchored by Devane’s performance, the first half of the film is a compelling character study. Can this battered war hero reconnect with the world, and find a redemptive new love with the young woman who idolizes him? Can he rekindle the humanity he knows he’s lost? “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you,” he tells the girl. “But I’m dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me.”

Unfortunately, some of the film’s virtues - and most of its subtleties - are lost in the second half, as Rane gets down to business. As inevitable as it is, the final shootout - with both men in full uniform - is a bit of a letdown. We want to know more about these characters, their struggles, and the ramifications of the violent paths they’ve chosen. Instead, we get only shotgun blasts and blood-spattered walls.

During an appearance at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Bruce Springsteen cited Rolling Thunder as one of the films (along with Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter) that influenced the songwriting on his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Some of the imagery does seem to have made its way into a later Springsteen song, a “Born in the USA” outtake called “Shut Out the Light,” about a returning Vietnam vet. The opening lines almost mirror the beginning of the film:

The runway rushed up at him/ As he felt the wheels touch down/
He stood out on the blacktop/ And took a taxi into town

That connection is even stronger in an earlier, darker version of the song with alternate lyrics:

Now every evening/ Well, just after supper time/ He’d go into the back bedroom/ And he’d lock the door behind/ He’d lie awake, a telephone line stretched out across a chair/ Just him and a few bad habits/ He’d brought back from over there.

Schrader’s original script also begins with a song, Red Sovine’s angry “Go Hide John,” a returning vet’s dire warning to his wife about the draft dodger lover she’s taken in his absence. It’s a postcard from a divided America, and miles away from the sentimental trucker ballads the singer was best known for:

I wrote you how I felt from Cam Ranh Bay/ He burned his card then stole your love away. ... Hide him well and tell him Hell waits on an airplane/ I depart these California skies at dawn/ You thought the war and all its fire would kill me in the jungle/ But I’m alive/ It’s time to go hide John.

Rolling Thunder made Gene Siskel’s 10 Best of 1977 list, alongside Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars. Quentin Tarantino took the title for his brief venture into rereleasing cult movies such as Switchblade Sisters and Detroit 9000, but the film that gave his company its name never made the cut. Released only on VHS home video in the ‘90s, it remains unavailable on domestic DVD. And that’s a shame. Despite its flaws, Rolling Thunder holds up as both a time capsule of ‘70s cinema, and a snapshot of post-Vietnam American madness.

Written by Wallace Stroby


Editor's note: Wallace has a new book out Cold Shot to the Heart


  1. Oooh, that looks awesome. Thanks for the review, I'm going to start seeing if I can hunt it down.

  2. This is indeed a great film. I saw it when it came out, and I also never forgot the song "San Antone" that played during the opening credits.

    Devane's finest hour.

  3. Coincidentally, the week after this piece ran, MGM announced it was releasing RT as a burn-on-demand DVD: http://amzn.to/iaV0ug


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