Movies We Like
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Clint Eastwood hit the big time with his trio of Sergio Leone-directed genre-bending spaghetti westerns and then propelled to superstardom with the vigilante-cop Dirty Harry flicks. But even while playing the mega-star in commercial fare he still managed to make a number of unusual flicks you wouldn’t expect from an actor riding such a glorious wave. Films like the gothic, civil war, teen lust thriller The Beguiled or playing a sociopathic rapist gunmen in the western High Plains Drifter (both great flicks) matched by what could only be called a homoerotic, action, road, buddy-dramady called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it’s like Midnight Cowboy but with fast cars and guns. The other thing that makes the movie so unique in Eastwood’s filmography; it was the only time in the era that he was paired with a co-star with so much measurable talent. In his best performance after his debate in The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges gives a fascinating performance and shows why he would also eventually reach iconic status (he also got well-deserved Oscar nominations for both films). Thunderbolt and Lightfoot provides Eastwood fans with the expected muscle, but also an odd dose of heart.
After the syrupy theme song by Paul Williams called “Where Do I Go From Here?” Eastwood first appears on screen as a minister giving a sermon in a church. When an assassin tries to shoot him, clearing the church, he takes off on foot and is saved when an eccentric young hot dog named Lightfoot (Bridges) runs over the hitman in a car he had just stolen. The two renegades hit the open Montana road together and have a peculiar instant bond. Eastwood rather easily spills his guts. He’s a famous bank robber known as Thunderbolt because of the cannon he uses to open safes. His old gang is after him because he’s the only one who knows where their loot is hidden (in the walls of a now missing school house). The easy banter between the two actors, with such different acting styles, is utterly winning with a number of sexual double entendres, constantly commenting on how each other looks, their behinds and even Bridges declaring, “I just like you as a friend” (and the word “queer” is used constantly). I haven’t experienced this much sexual tension between two men since Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson caused rainbows and goosebumps in 2 Fast 2 Furious. To prove his heterosexuality Bridges even brings home a couple of willing teeny boppers, Eastwood takes his share of the free sex, but blatantly looks bored with her and keeps peeking longingly at the door to the room in which Bridges is having sex. The buds' honeymoon comes to an abrupt stop when two of Eastwood’s ex-croneys (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis, with their own homoerotic tension going on) finally catch up with him and his new beau. At first threatening, but then bumbling, their plan to kill Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is quickly thwarted by Eastwood’s bad-assness. Though the older guys don’t take the same shine to Bridges' tight white slacks as Eastwood did and are turned off by his naive eagerness, they do buy into his scheme that the two couples combine forces to pull off their own new heist, which all, ironically enough, hinges on Bridges dressing up like a woman (convincingly) to distract a guard.
The key to the film is not the heist (which really doesn’t make any sense) or the action (which is solid) or the violence (which is plentiful), it’s the friendship. Though Eastwood does his Eastwood thing well (with more dialogue than usual for the period), Bridges steals the movie. Through the decades Bridges has been such a unique and for a long time underappreciated actor. Until more recently he was never really considered top-tier, A-List, even with a number of duds, he’s been a major leading man, moving between sex symbol parts (Against All Odds) and character work (Starman, another Oscar nomination). Other actors like Mel Gibson or Dennis Quaid or Kevin Costner have come and peaked during the span of his career. Along with his powerful performance in Peter Weir’s devastating drama Fearless, his work as Lightfoot may be his best. Through his natural charisma and utter audaciousness he infuses Lightfoot with a tragic sweetness. Because of his inherent innocence and goodness in such a violent story, the audience can sense that things are not going to end up well for this guy.
In the early '70s Michael Cimino quickly went from Madison Avenue commercial helmer to hot screenwriter with the classic little sci-fi flick Silent Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry follow-up Magnum Force. Eastwood was impressed and bought his script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and even gave up his directing chair so the young scribe could make his debut. Of course in some circles Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is only a footnote in Cimino’s notorious career. He would follow it up with the exploitation masterpiece, gussied-up into an Oscar dominator, The Deer Hunter. And then the legendary bomb, Heaven’s Gate, which for years was the definition of disaster though it’s slowly been rediscovered and now considered by many to be a “lost” gem. (A recent highbrow Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release is sure to cement its new positive reputation). He would never achieve the admiration of his first two films, instead he would direct four more unsuccessful flicks, helping to bring down Mickey Rourke’s career too, with the ugly Year of the Dragon and the boring remake of Desperate Hours. He has tried to get many projects off the ground unsuccessfully (he was even once going to direct Footloose). Reluctant to speak to the press, who usually dumps on him, most accounts reveal a very strange man whose idiocentric behavior and over indulgent qualities helped to end his career as much as did the blatant flops.
Though Eastwood and Bridges have mostly had massive careers, and Cimino did briefly, all three are definitely mavericks who were never afraid of taking risks. I don’t know if Eastwood was in on the obvious homoeroticism that ended up on the screen in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot - it might all just be a fluke with three different kinds of talents blending into a strange brew. But if I had to guess, I’d say that perhaps Bridges and Cimino knew what they were doing and managed to hijack an Eastwood vehicle, making it much more interesting than most of the other muscle pictures of the era. Besides its entertainment value and its relevance in the history of gay innuendo on-screen, it also plays as a key influence on the buddy picture that would become a staple of the genre to come. But that’s a whole other story and another reason why the secret importance of a mostly forgotten movie like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is actually so significant and so secretly cool.