This cult 1970s revenge flick belongs to the well-stocked ‘back from ‘Narm’ sub-category and stars William Devane as United States Air Force officer Major Charles Rane, who, shot down over Vietnam, where he is physically and mentally tortured in a POW camp for seven years, finds his ordeal far from over after his family get wiped out and his hand mutilated in a kitchen sink waste disposal unit by murderous crooks, who stage a home invasion in search of a chest-full of silver dollars (one for every day he spent in captivity) the veteran was earlier awarded at a San Antonio ceremony, soon after his return to the States. With his friend and fellow former POW John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) in tow, the hook-handed vigilante stocks up on weapons and the two set out across the Mexican border in Rane’s flashy red Cadillac Convertible, to dish out justice the only way they know how … with a Peckinpah-style bloodbath.
The original screenplay for this was by Paul Schrader -- a follow-up to his work on “Taxi Driver”, which he was also meant to direct as well as write, until a falling out with the producers saw him leaving the project altogether. After John Flynn was chosen as the replacement to fill the director’s vacant seat, however, the original story was significantly re-written and polished by Heywood Gould (“The Boys from Brazil”, “Cocktail”), removing all of the references to Devane’s character being extreme right wing and racist. Rather than a deranged and unsympathetic nut, already driven recklessly over the edge Travis Bickle-style, even before the loss of his wife and son, by his horrific wartime experiences, Gould’s rewrite plays down the more histrionic elements of the revenging Vet sub-genre, despite the trailer’s memorable tag line of: ‘They took his arm, his family … and his soul!’
This change of emphasis is precisely what makes the film stand out today against a slew of movies back in the day which frequently used such material as the basis for exploitation kicks. The plot unwinds slowly, at an even pace. At the same time, it delivers the goods, and has become a favourite with Quentin Tarantino (who named his short-lived releasing company after it) and Eli Roth. Although originally slated for release by 20th Century Fox, the studio passed on it after seeing the violent final cut and Sam Arkoff’s American International stepped in to fill the breach, although one shot of Rane’s hand being mangled in the waste disposal chute eventually hit the cutting room floor and stayed there. Director John Flynn never managed to build the instantly recognisable brand name for himself that his contemporaries Scorsese and Coppola managed to, and was reduced after this to a series of un-prestigious genre flicks for the remainder of his career, yet his treatment of the subject is never less than serious and authentic and the performances he elicits from all the cast are controlled, precise and realistic. Jordan Cronenweth’s subdued low light photography prefigures the noir-ish neon tint of his work on “Blade Runner” and the low-key and evenly measured tone, with its focused emphasis on character development, sets up the events of the last five minutes (which play at twice the volume of the rest of the film) with exquisite craft.
The first half-hour makes for as beautifully elaborated a study, suffused with poignant character detail, as it is possible to imagine: Rane and Vohden exit the jet bringing them home from foreign imprisonment while hiding their alienation behind tinted shades, the harsh San Antonio sunlight revealing a gaudy high school Welcome Home procession on the runway and a country stretching out beyond it whose mores they now no longer recognise, where the women no longer wear bras and the miniskirt fashion has been and gone. Neither of them feels much connection with anything or anyone anymore. The look of supressed desperation Vohden flashes at Rane speaks volumes when a family that can never now understand him and a flighty girlfriend he left behind long ago and no longer relates to swarm him on the tarmac and usher him away towards their car. Rane, meanwhile, after making a clearly unfelt speech about how faith in God and Family kept him going throughout seven long years of torture, returns to his unchanged suburban house to find the inevitable has happened: his wife (Lisa Richards) as fallen in love with someone else and his nine-year-old son no longer recognises or even remembers him. Yet Rane is so emotionally numb he can’t react to the news that his wife now wants a divorce. While he was a prisoner he managed to make a slab of his favourite candy -- sent over to him by his wife -- last for six months solid by taking just a nibble from it every day; and he helped himself keep a hold of his sanity by secretly stitching from memory a small quilt of the American flag out of pieces of coloured thread he was able somehow to scrape together from his surroundings. Yet the values those symbols of hope once represented for him in Vietnam no longer live up to the reality of civilian life at home. The values the country now represents are money and consumerism, represented by the case of silver dollars and the shiny new red Cadillac he’s been awarded -- which Rane continues to cruise around town in with the same look of blank indifference on his face behind the never-removed cool shades.
The film delineates how Rane is stuck in the POW mind-set: he sleeps out in his backyard workshed because it feels more like the small quiet cell he has by now grown accustomed to after seven years away. Displaying little in the way of exterior emotional response, he carries on with the same morning exercise regime and bed-making ritual he was forced to carry out in captivity, and even gets his wife’s lover -- a local police officer (Lawrason Driscoll), who guiltily tries his best to befriend the returning hero he never meant to betray -- to mimic the rope torture ordeal he had to undergo twice a day at the hands of his Vietcong captors. ‘You learn to love the rope’ he tells the bewildered and now frightened man, when he tries to understand how Rane could tolerate such brutalisation …
When a bunch of mean-ass career criminals led by The Texan (James Best – better known as Sheriff Rosco in “The Dukes of Hazzard”) and a ruthless psycho called Automatic Slim (career movie criminal Luke Askew) invade Rane’s home and try to get him to reveal the location of the chest of silver dollars he was awarded by his home state, the ensuing torture they unleash upon him merely engenders flashbacks to his experiences in Vietnam and he refuses to talk or react in any way, even when they destroy his hand. Because, unbeknownst to his tormentors, this form of exchange, between aggressor and victim, is the only mode of human interaction Rane can now relate to. After his wife and son return home unexpectedly in the middle of it, though, the invaders merely force the boy to show them where the money is -- then kill him and Rane’s wife in cold blood, drumming home the fact that all of Rane’s past sacrifices have been more nothing. The Major survives, but pretends to have no memory of the attack; he returns home after a spell in hospital -- where his buddy Vohden, grateful for the chance to escape from his annoying family, comes to care for him – sharpens his prosthetic hand to a pointed hook-blade and prepares to go back to war …
Devane’s performance during this first act is audaciously devoid of reaction of any sort, maintaining that look of poised, granite-like indifference even in the wake of the death of his son. He hooks up with a vivacious young blonde called Linda (Linda Haynes) who was chosen by his home town to wear his POW bracelet every day while he was away from home, and has since become something of an obsessive groupie, continuing to romantically idolise him upon his return. This is where the film takes a slightly unusual turn in the second act, offering Rane the prospect of a new life and a new love with a modern woman (she heartily embraces the whole ‘not wearing a bra’ deal as well) who herself has had a hard life as a washed-up waitress, but nevertheless knows how to handle a gun. Without telling her what he has in mind, Rane invites her to take a trip with him south of the border to go seek out the gang members, using her as bait to lure them into a false sense of security before getting down to business with his sharpened hook-hand, pinning one unfortunate to the table with it and giving another a nasty token of his esteem … right between the legs! Haynes is a beguiling presence in the movie but her ultimate role in the drama is to provide the audience with the tantalising possibility of Rane escaping from his emotional inertia, a prospect which is used to highlight just how far gone he actually is. ‘You’re the quietest man I ever met’ Linda tells him at one point, during a lull in their search for the killer gang; to which his only reply is ‘that’s because I really can’t think of anything to say’. And then: ‘It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you, but I’m dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me’.
This exchange ultimately signals that Linda is destined to be left behind when Rane finally pinpoints the gang’s hideout -- a sleazy Mexican bordello -- and returns to inform his, by now, more than willing pal Vohden of the news. ‘I’ll just get my gear,’ are his friend’s only words as he turns to his wardrobe and retrieves a bag containing an arsenal of sawn-off double barrel shot guns and pistols! This is clearly the first good thing that’s happened to Vohden since his return home, and he’s obviously been preparing for it for a long time! The pair get kitted up in their full Air Force uniform regalia (‘he never wears his uniform when I ask him to!’ complains Vohden’s girlfriend) and leave Vohden’s family gathering in the middle of dinner to go and do what needs to be done.
The final frenzied five minutes of the picture, when Rane stakes out the Mexican brothel while Vohden has to feign interest in a prostitute until given the command to unleash his firepower, succumbs to the kind of high-octane action fest that the rest of the film’s been holding back from for almost ninety minutes. But Flynn’s taut direction delivers a compelling, gritty essay in Peckinpah-style male honour through aggression when the time comes. The drama is beautifully played by all concerned. Tommy Lee Jones in particular (in one of his first big screen roles) conveys the supressed, twitchy passivity of someone constantly on the edge of exploding with pent up frustration. A scene in which Rane and Vohden sit eyeing each other in Vohden’s family’s living room, enduring in silence the inanities of his relatives’ chit-chat, tells you everything you need to know about what is going on inside these two alienated souls. If the film has any failings at all then there is indeed a slight imbalance brought about by the way in which the Linda Haynes character is simply dropped altogether before the final act, and a subplot about Rane’s wife’s policeman lover, Cliff, attempting to follow Rane’s trail to Mexico, where he plans either to stop him or help him, doesn’t feel like it hooks up with the main narrative satisfactorily. We expect at least some interaction or resolution between the two after the first act, but it never materialises, his scenes remaining always separate from the main story arc. The villains of the piece make excellent antagonists though -- particularly Askew, who plays an irredeemably ruthless monster who won’t give up and enjoys his recreational sadism a little too much; and who is himself a Vietnam vet who has little respect for Rane’s heroism, complaining that Rane’s Air Force pals had it easy up in the air while he and his kind spent the war ‘face down in the mud’.
“Rolling Thunder” has been unavailable on domestic DVD for some time, although there was a burn-on-demand DVD-R offered by MGM recently. This double-play release from Studio Canal is a welcome development though, and we even get some enjoyable extras included as well. The HD transfer is fairly variable it has to be said, as is perhaps to be expected from a film which has been completely out of circulation for such a long time. Plenty of it looks pretty good, although it never reaches anything near the peak of what the HD format can offer. Some of the darker scenes have the tendency to be excessively grainy with lots of swarming, and there is print damage noticeable in several instances too. Nevertheless, I doubt if we’ll see a better version of this rare cult attraction in the near future, and a great deal of it looks fine. The Blu-ray edition features a mono DTS-HD Master audio track which is a lot thinner than we’re probably used to these days, again probably because of the rarity of the film resulting in the vault materials not having been maintained to a high standard.
The disc features a commentary with co-writer Heywood Gould moderated by Roy Frumkes, a filmmaker probably best known to genre fans for his lengthy documentary “Document of the Dead”, which detailed the making of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”. Gould is able to give a lot more detail about the production than would normally be the case with a writer because he was called down to the set during the actual shoot to contribute more rewrites and backstory for the Linda Haynes subplot, and so got to see the film being made from close quarters. This is an interesting account then, with Gould being full of praise particularly for director John Flynn, and citing the film as perhaps his most perfect experience on a film set. We also get a ten minute interview conducted recently with Linda Haynes, who talks about her early career and how things never quite developed for her. She mentions with regret turning down an offer to audition for an episode of “ER” having not at the time ever heard of the director who had specifically asked for her – a certain Mr Quentin Tarantino! Eli Roth provides an enthusiastic commentary for the theatrical trailer in a “Trailers from Hell” featurette, and said commentary is also included raw along with a ‘70s TV spot, both rounding off a very worthwhile release for fans of cult action revenge flicks. “Rolling Thunder” stands up extremely well in comparison to other ‘Veterans go Vigilante’ flicks of the seventies and eighties, its strong character-based emphasis and mature direction lending it a sophistication few of its contemporaries can match. Well worth seeking out.
Read more from Black Gloves at the blog Nothing But The Night!