Back in 1973, before Paul Schrader-penned films like The Yakuza, Obsession and Taxi Driver saw the light of day, the writer came up with a story about a racist white-trash soldier coming back from Vietnam hailed as a war hero who violently confronts the Mexican community in his hometown. Schrader turned this idea into a great antiwar screenplay that he envisioned as a powerful metaphoric statement against racism and a stern condemnation of American racist foreign policy that led to the Vietnam bloodbath. Producer Larry Gordon like the idea and wanted to make the film with Schrader as the director. The script, however, was allegedly written specifically for John Milius to direct, but he considered it too dark for his taste. “Boy, it was a good script, with wonderful stuff in it,” he later commented. “Paul at his best.” But when Rolling Thunder, as Schrader named it, ended up in 20th Century Fox’s lap, the producers wanted a different angle. A promising writer called Heywood Gould, who’d later pen the scripts for The Boys from Brazil and Fort Apache, The Bronx, was brought in to do a rewrite and the new version stepped away from a lot of what Schrader wanted the film to say. This was the primary reason he disowned it right upon its release. Instead of making a film about fascism, he said, they decided to make a fascist film. With experienced no-nonsense genre craftsman John Flynn in the director’s chair, Rolling Thunder might not have been the movie Schrader imagined, but it firmly stands as one of the most important pictures of the decade nevertheless.
The year is 1973. Accompanied by the melancholic tune of Denny Brooks’ country ballad San Antone, we see hundreds of people gathered at an airport juxtaposed to the shots of a small plane getting ready to land. Based on the posters and signs cheerfully held by the crowd, it becomes obvious the aircraft carries a couple of American soldiers who spent the last seven years imprisoned in a Vietnam camp. Two people who step out into the sunlight deal with the situation quite differently. Major Charles Rane (brilliantly restrained William Devane) is cold as ice as he delivers a short speech about how the whole torturous experience had made him a better man and a better American. His fellow prisoner, Sergeant Johnny Vohden (the great Tommy Lee Jones at the start of his career), shows much less self-confidence and isn’t prepared to face the audience. Standing next to the nervous youngster, Major Rane seems like he has his shit together, but as soon as they separate and Rane has to go home with his wife and son, we realize the complexity of the situation. While he was tortured, beaten and psychologically traumatized thousands of miles away, his wife fell in love with another man and agreed to marry him, while his son can’t even remember him as he was a baby at the beginning of the war.
These blows might be too much for some other guy, but Rane takes them on the chin without flinching, with sorrow and disappointment present only in the corner of his eyes. “I had everything worked out, but nothing’s going the way I planned,” he tells the Air Force psychiatrist (Dabney Coleman), who reminds him that it might take some time for him to readjust to civilian life. Tragically, it turns out Rane’s family is all out of time: when a group of burglars break into their house to get their hands on a suitcase full of silver dollars that Rane got from the state as a thank you for his service and suffering, they stick the uncooperative veteran’s hand into the garbage disposal and cold-bloodedly slaughter his wife and kid.
Shot in San Antonio, Texas, over the course of a month with the iconic director of photography Jordan Cronenweth (BladeRunner) behind the camera, Rolling Thunder rode the tide of violent revenge films that occupied a fair share of American seventies’ cinema, but still managed to stand out as visibly different. And not only because of its brutal violence and the story of mythic proportions that came along with its premiere. “We knew we were doing something fairly bold,” director Flynn recalled the skepticism regarding the film’s brutality. But when they submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA, they had virtually no objections. “We expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent films in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating!” But then the producers decided to show a preview to the audience and its reaction almost sealed the film’s fate. In his Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes it as “the most violent sneak reaction of recent years… the audience actually got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present among them.” Shocked by such feedback, 20th Century Fox turned to psychiatrists for explanation on why the test audience reacted in such a way, and the reasoning was quite simple: the idea that the sanctity and safety of one’s home could be so easily desecrated and violated was simply too much for them to handle.
20th Century Fox wanted it re-cut, Gordon refused and took Rolling Thunder to American International Pictures (AIP), but the film didn’t get the wide release it aimed for. “It probably would’ve made a big difference if they’d actually released it properly,” William Devane offered his two cents. “It never got the release it would’ve if they’d really jumped on it and supported it. But I didn’t understand how to operate in those days. (…) But a movie star guy would’ve done everything he could to force them to release it properly, you know? And Tommy and I were just starting. God, that was the first featured role I ever did. Good picture, though. It’s a really good picture.”
The reason why Rolling Thunder left a mark this deep is not so easy to discern, but from my perspective there are three specific things that elevate it far above a typical revenge-themed action film. The first important element that should be noted is the originality in the film’s choice of its subject matter. Even though it could be seen as a companion piece to Schrader’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver, its decision to concentrate on the psychological consequences of war and imprisonment was bold and refreshing. “The critics seemed keen to dismiss it as ‘lightweight’ or ‘mindless’, but Rolling Thunder was able to explore things we didn’t touch on in Taxi Driver – the flashbacks to Devane’s time in captivity, for example,” Schrader explained. “And the scene where Devane asks his wife’s new fella to tie him up the way the Viet Cong used to, I don’t think that’s something you’d get in your standard ‘mindless’ action movie.” Tommy Lee Jones made a similar remark. “This was very early in the returning Vietnam veterans genre. Bill did a really good job. That character hadn’t been written or played or filmed before.” And even if Schrader’s initial antiwar sentiment was sacrificed along the way, Rolling Thunder still put the problem of reintegrating traumatized war veterans back into civil society clearly under the spotlight, and there’s not a single scene in the whole picture that suggests there’s anything painless or simple about the procedure.
The second very strong argument for the greatness of the film is a plethora of incredibly powerful images and scenes that Schrader, Gould and Flynn incorporated into the story. From the simplest one, the image of Rane’s disassembling of a shotgun – at the same time symbolic and somehow inexplicably ominous, to more complex and narratively significant, like sporadic black-and-white flashbacks to scenes of torture that shed light on the protagonist’s state of mind. Sleeping in the shed in the backyard, as it’s small and quiet and reminds him of the place he practically considered his home for the last seven years, Rane reenacts situations from the past, even curling up in the corner in a cleverly edited montage. When he asks his wife’s lover to tie him up and stretch his arms until his bones crack, you get an unforgettably uncomfortable scene that shows you just how far from alright he actually is. “You learn to love the rope,” he explains. “That’s how you beat them.” Later on in the film, after Rane enlists the help of his disorientated fellow soldier Vohden who’s unable to stomach the banality of peaceful everyday life, there’s a great scene where Vohden lies in a bed with a prostitute in the whorehouse to which Rane tracked down his family’s killers. He couldn’t care less about the woman beside him, waiting on edge for Rane to give him the signal. And when he hears it, he grabs his gun and there’s excitement on his face. His life has meaning once again.
The third reason Rolling Thunder is so memorable is the uniqueness of its format. As funny as it sounds, this is almost like two films combined into one. In the first half an hour, we get a placid, slow-paced drama that introduces us to the characters, their psychological states and family dynamics. The abrupt eruption of violence cuts this story short and gives Rolling Thunder the vibe of a road revenge film, with more action sequences, faster tempo and more chaotic editing. It seems this uncanny virtue made Rolling Thunder one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite pictures, impressing him so much he decided to name his short-lived production company Rolling Thunder Pictures. When Jon Stewart asked him back in 1994 what obscure film from a great director he would recommend we rent immediately, it was this film that came to his mind. “One of the greatest action films of all time, the greatest combination of an action film and a character study.” So if our praise doesn’t quite entice you to check it out, perhaps Tarantino’s word holds enough weight.
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