Released in 1977, Rolling Thunder is a curious combination of two popular trends in 1970s cinema: the vigilante, revenge movie and the existentialist flick. You may not have heard of it, but the film also happens to be Quentin Tarantino’s favourite film.
In fact Tarantino liked Rolling Thunder so much he named his short lived distribution company, which put out his favourite cult movies, Rolling Thunder Pictures. According to Tarantino, “most movies let you down, but this is ass-kicking nirvana.” He’s right that bottoms are certainly kicked, but his statement slightly underplays the film’s subtlety. Not that we’re talking Chekov here, but neither is the film a no holds barred action film.
The year is 1973 and William Devane is Major Charles Rane, a US Airforce pilot who has just been released from seven years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison. On his return to San Antonio, Texas he is treated as a local hero and given a shiny red Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars (one for each day of captivity and one for luck). However, back at home his wife tells him that she has “been with another man” and wants to leave him. Not that he’s particularly upset by this. Torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese army has changed Major Rane.
When a gang of thugs break into his house to steal the dollars and end up killing his wife and son, Major Rane’s implacable exterior still appears to be unruffled. Eventually he does decide to avenge the murders, but it is still possible to wonder whether he is gripped by a murderous passion or just acting out a role drummed into him by his years of military service. The thing is, Rane is not just a traumatised former-POW or desolated father, but an existentialist anti-hero. He is also a creation of Paul Schrader, the man who created Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver fame. Nonetheless, he picks up a waitress, played by Linda Haynes, from a bar and sets off in his Cadillac to hunt the men down.
Schrader has said how Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ and Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes From The Underground’ both influenced the creation of Bickle. He wrote Rolling Thunder in 1973, the year after Taxi Driver, and there are quite a few similarities between Bickle and Rane. Not only are they ex-servicemen who are partial to wearing shades, but they are both deeply alienated too. Like Bickle, Rane lives alone and finds it difficult to make an emotional connection to anyone (apart from a former POW buddy Johnny Vohden played by Tommy Lee Jones).
In his original script Schrader made his hero Texas ‘trash’ and a racist; it contained a scene where Rane’s later vigilantism was directed at Mexicans in an act that, Schrader said, serves as “some kind of metaphor for American racism in Vietnam”. This political edginess had to be cut in order to get the film made (although the film takes its title from the code name of the controversial US bombing campaign of North Vietnam). A more conventional Hollywood player, Heywood Gould, re-wrote the script so that Rane hunts down regular bad guys rather than venting racist spleen on Mexicans. However, the remnants of Schrader’s existentialist anti-hero are still traceable. Rane isn’t just an uncomplicated angry man like ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan or Paul ‘Death Wish’ Kersey. His alienation is so extreme that he considers himself dead; at one point he recalls “I remember that song from when I was alive.”
This vivid dialogue must be one of the reasons that Quentin Tarantino loves the film. There are some striking moments such as when Rane’s new waitress girlfriend asks “Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?” to which the damaged airman replies “‘Cos that’s the only kinds that’s left.” Very cool. Indie music god Will Oldham is also someone else who is likes the dialogue, and features a sample of Rane talking to his wife in his song Blood Embrace.
Quite why Tarantino would like a film with an existentialist anti-hero does raise an interesting point. Blank introspectiveness doesn’t seem much like the sort of character trait he would be attracted to, and existentialists are way too serious and not in the least self-aware. Indeed, Schrader told the New Statesman that, “If you made a film about an existential hero today, it would just look tired. Everything since Pulp Fiction has to be in quotation marks.” He goes on to say that it is the anger that remains universal in Taxi Driver – and Tarantino might add, the “ass-kicking”. A great example of this is Major Rane’s inventive sharpening of the metal hook that has replaced the hand destroyed by the thugs (in a horribly effective scene) which he then has fun trying out on his enemies.
Overall the movie has very little fat on its bones. There is very little music apart from the odd country song played on the radio and there aren’t too many characters to distract from the central vengeful story. It was directed by John Flynn, whose directorial style IMDB describes as ‘taut, streamlined and fiercely economical’, all of which apply to this film.
It’s strange that a corker of a movie like Rolling Thunder seems to have slid down the back of the sofa and been largely forgotten except by people like Tarantino who seems to have seen every film ever made. He’s right that it is ‘ass-kicking nirvana’, but it is also intriguingly introspective and asks a few unsettling questions about the American dream that help take it above the usual crop of revenge and vigilante films.
One of Rolling Thunder‘s fans includes Eli Roth, director of Hostel and Cabin Fever, who introduces the trailer here:
Rolling Thunder is now available on Special Edition Double Play which features some great extras including some exclusive never-before-seen content – an interview with actress Linda Haynes and audio commentary with Heywood Gould. It is also the first time this classic will be available on Blu-Ray.