From the the slasher movie-ish box art, to the prominent cover quote from Eli Roth proclaiming it a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, you might expect Rolling Thunder to be a sleazy slice of seventies exploitation. In fact this was probably what audiences who greeted the film on its original release in 1977 also expected. The film was released by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures who specialised in drive-in fare. In fact Rolling Thunder was made as a studio picture until it provoked such horrified reactions from executives at early screenings that the film was hastily sold off.
Major Charles Rane (Devane) is an American officer returning to his Texan home town as a war hero. He has been liberated from a Viet Cong prison camp where he had been held for eight years. He arrives to cheering crowds with Sgt. Johnny Voden (Jones) a friend also liberated from the camp. Rane initially seems to be a rock solid example of fine American machismo, able to greet the welcoming crowds while his friend Voden is withdrawn and emotionally damaged. However he does not return to a rose garden, Rane finds that his wife has grown apart from him, and his young son has no memory of his father. Eventually his wife tells him that she had given him up for dead and has fallen in love with another man who she plans to marry. Rane is calm and makes no great fuss over this, but he does want to make a connection with his son.
As Rane tries to ease back into civilian life, he has to contend with his celebrity status as a war hero. He is recognised often and constantly has his drinks bought for him. At another ceremony to honour him, he is gifted with a red cadillac and $2000 in silver dollars. He also meets Linday (Haynes) the young woman who wore his ID bracelet during his incarceration. It’s clear that Linda is interested in initiating some kind of relationship with Rane, but he very politely rebuffs her initial advances.
It becomes more and more obvious that war experiences have affected Rane far more deeply than outward appearances would imply. He moves into a work shed in the garden, and sets up spartan sleeping arrangements that mirror the cell in which he was imprisoned (this is shown in very brief flashbacks). There is an extraordinary scene in which his wife’s lover tries to smooth over their domestic awkwardness. Rane is apparently polite, but when he is quizzed about the torture he endured in Vietnam, he demonstrates a sadistic interrogation technique by having the man perform it upon him. It is an incredibly sadomasochistic scene.
One afternoon Rane returns home to find some lowlife thugs who are after his collection of silver dollars. Rane does not fight back, but patiently endures a severe beating. Frustrated with his lack of co-operation they shove his hand into the kitchen garbage disposal. This is a difficult to watch scene that while a lot less graphic than it could have been is most likely the reason the film was dumped by the studio. Tragically Rane’s estranged wife and son return during the robbery setting in motion a chain of revenge and violence.
Originally intended to be both written and directed by Paul Schrader, the Taxi Driver screenwriter exited the film because the studio wished for extensive changes to his script. This lead to screenwriter Heywood Gould extensively rewriting it. On the disc’s commentary track Gould claims he completely altered the character of Rane from a racist and violent character, added the romance between Rane and Linda, and moved the story away from an obvious anti-Vietnam statement. In fact the issue of Vietnam is barely addressed in the film, it is far more a complex examination of sado-masochism and violence with surprising psychological depth. Rolling Thunder is not a film for cheap thrills, there is strong violence, but it is a very long time coming. The perpetrators are such psychologically damaged individuals even before the events that trigger their acts of vengeance, that the eventual inevitable blood bath has no cathartic kick.
Rolling Thunder is a very underrated example of seventies American cinema, it ought to be seen as a film in the lineage of Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter but it has never had the sort of critical examination it deserved. Most likely this is because of its association with AiP. What credit the film does receive generally goes to Schrader, although it seems he may have had less to do with its success than director John Flynn or co-screenwriter Gould. Flynn was a director with two minor classics to his name (this and the Larry Cohen scripted thriller Best Seller), but also action tosh like Stallone’s Lock Up and Out For Justice starring Stephen Seagal. Flynn directs Rolling Thunder with unobtrusive craftsmanship, and mounts a terrific shoot out.
Among the cast Devane is superb as Rane, not a typical action movie actor he delivers a still, subtle performance. This was an early role for Tommy Lee Jones and he is also excellent as the more obviously damaged soldier, there is a great scene where he sits silently as his Texan family prattle on around him (including Paul A Partain, who played the disabled Franklin in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). With his dead-eyed stare Jones looks like he could jump up and slaughter everyone in the room at a moments notice. Rane’s arrival spares them but of course violence is just waiting to burst out. Linda Haynes is also very good as the good time girl who Rane coerces into joining his scheme of revenge. Whilst initially appearing to be a generic male fantasy, a sexually available blond waitress, Haynes character is allowed to reveal hidden depths and emerges as probably the most sympathetic in the film.
EXTRAS ★★ Studio Canal’s Blu-ray transfer continues to show the great work the company is doing with catalogue titles. The excellent camerawork of Jordan Cronenweth is superbly preserved (he is most famous for shooting Blade Runner). Extras are slight; there is an interview with Haynes which is fine but not terrible interesting, and several trailers. The film’s theatrical trailer is presented with a commentary from Eli Roth in which he remembers a rape scene that isn’t actually in the film. The best extra is a commentary track with Gould, which is extremely interesting, moderated by Roy Frumkes, Gould delivers some excellent anecdotes about the film and his career. It’s all good added value, but I would have loved to have seen a more extensive making off documentary, but economics would hardly justify it.