The recent wave of 70s trash cinema throwback films—Machete, Hobo With a Shotgun, Drive Angry—have their charms. They tend to remind me, however, of a stand-up comedian who specializes in impersonating one or two easily mimicked celebrities—good for a laugh or two, but never mistaken for the real thing, and far from capable of sustaining an entire act. If you have a love for that impersonated celebrity, his act isn’t going to satisfy; it’s just going to make wish that you were watching the real thing. And if you’re hungry for real, grade-A 70s trash cinema, there’s no better place to get it than from 1977’s Rolling Thunder. Here we have a film that offers everything we love about the period: over the top violence, sex, sleaze, vigilante justice, and allusions to Vietnam, all of it presented with a sincerity no modern substitute is going to offer, and all in a more concentrated form than perhaps any of its contemporaries.
The story follows veteran Air Force pilot Charles Rane, returning to his home in Texas after years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Unlike later films which would try to paint a picture of returning servicemen being screamed at and spit upon, Rane more realistically returns a public hero; he is even awarded a brand new Cadillac and a silver dollar for every day he spent in captivity. The first half of the film is a character study of a man left emotionally dead by war, whose son has forgotten him and whose wife has moved on to another man. With its country croon soundtrack and small town atmosphere, one is briefly led to expect all of the grit and violence of a Lifetime movie. It seems the action will be limited to the hero working toward reconciliation with his family or finding peace or some bullshit like that. Then film then takes a sharp turn in plot and tone reminiscent of Miracle Mile. A roaming band of outlaws shows up at Rane’s door looking for his silver dollars. When they try to torture their location out of him, his mind flashes back to Vietnam, and he stays quiet even as they force his hand down a roaring garbage disposal. When they get what they want, they shoot him and leave him for dead, pausing only to murder his family before leaving.
Finally, what we’ve been waiting for. In typical vigilante fashion, Rane makes a miraculous recovery, requiring only his seething rage for medication. He trains himself to load a gun with his new prosthetic hook hand, which he also sharpens to a razor sharp edge, and he saws off the end of the shotgun his son got him as a homecoming gift. He spends the rest of the movie searching for the killers, navigating the dusty roads of Texas in his giant Cadillac with a trunk full of guns and a blonde bimbo in the back seat. It’s as clear cut a recipe for a vigilante revenge flick as the 70s ever produced. And, believe it or not, there may even be an intelligent movie buried somewhere underneath.
Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay in 1973, a year after he finished his screenplay for Taxi Driver in 1972. It’s hard to figure how the same mind using essentially the same concept could write both a film frequently regarded as among the best produced by American cinema and another that is a largely forgotten example of cult 70s trash. Perhaps in those first four years in which Taxi Driver wouldn’t sell, a likely very hungry Schrader attempted to repackage the idea to sell to the exploitation film market. The result is like Taxi Driver had a redneck, white trash twin brother that the family neglects as an embarrassment while piling his older brother’s numerous awards into the trophy case. In another sense, the two films complement one another perfectly. Taxi Driver is said to draw inspiration from Ford’s The Searchers in Bickle’s quest to rescue a white girl from sexual captivity by modern day savages; the rest, however, is missing—the hero’s quest to avenge his slaughtered family’s deaths, the searching aspect of the narrative. Rolling Thunder has these things but no captive white girl. Between the two, there’s something complete—some kind of commentary about Western film ideology influencing our involvement in Vietnam, or the infectious racial anger or thirst for violence within the American character. Much of this commentary seems to have been written out of Rolling Thunder in revision by lesser screenwriters, but traces remain on close inspection.
But that’s not really why we’re here, of course. We’re here to see Charles Rane stab criminal scum through the hands and in the scrote with his murder hook. We’re here to see Tommy Lee Jones show up in just the last few minutes of the film and totally steal the show with just a twiddle of his uni-brow and no more than two lines (one of which is simply “I’m gonna go kill a bunch of people.”) We’re here to see the absolutely adorable leading lady, who spends the whole movie teasing us with an airtight white tank top, get naked—and, unfortunately, this is the only thing the movie is truly missing (Why? Why, damn you?). The film ends with a climactic bloodbath in a Mexican brothel to rival even Taxi Driver’s, with Schrader’s supercilious commentary on the mindlessness of violence written out in favor of some old fashioned American enthusiasm for vengeance. Is Rolling Thunder some kind of trash film accidentally made a masterpiece, or a potential masterpiece made trash by trash filmmakers? It’s somewhere in between, or somehow both at once. It’s available on DVD for the first time from Amazon; you can put it on your shelf next to Taxi Driver or next to Death Wish. Perhaps it’ll fit best right in between.