Movies We Like
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).
Unfortunately those silver dollars attract publicity --the wrong kind--from a group of local Tex-Mex creeps. Hungry for two grand in coins, they show up at Rane’s house. (And they have cool creep names: The Texan, Melio, T-Bird and Automatic Slim.) They try beating where the treasure is hidden out of Rane, even mangling his hand in the garbage disposal, but--ever the stoic soldier--he won't tell where the mini-fortune is. Finally the wife and kid come home. The kid gives up the coins and the gang shoots the whole family. Conveniently the wife and kid die, but Rane lives and then does what every good '70s Vet does; he goes on a revenge killing spree.
With a new hook instead of a hand and a sawed off shot gun, Rane is joined by Linda. (Although he is a total dick to her, she is overly loyal). As they drive around dingy Texas border towns, she helps him get information about the gang from different barflies and low-lifes. Eventually, after emotionally abusing her for a little while, Rane ditches Linda (leaving with her with a nice stash of cash) and instead enlists his old homeboy Vohden. The two don their old uniforms and go all G.I. Joe to enact a little vengeance, with a nasty and violent showdown in a classically Peckinpah-like brothel.
Often hiding behind aviator shades, the toothy Devane had come to prominence playing JFK in the TV movie The Missiles of October and nice ensemble turns in Marathon Man and Hitchcock’s final flick The Family Plot. He usually seemed best suited to play a smooth doctor or lawyer, so it comes as a slight surprise how much he excels in the Flynn/ Schrader world of violent manly-men. Rolling Thunder is a perfect ugly, mean-spirited exploitation flick that wonderfully sums up Hollywood (and the country’s) fear of the Vietnam Vet. But interestingly, where this film falls on the release schedule makes it much more important. '77 was a full year before The Deer Hunter and Coming Home famously made the plight of the Vietnam Vet respectable Oscar bait. (Just before Rolling Thunder, the vettyness of the Vet was only part of the deep background of acclaimed films like Dog Day Afternoon and the uber exploitation flick Taxi Driver, which was dressed up in high art). As Rolling Thunder rolled out to the inner city dives and grind-houses, higher hopes may have been placed on a lighter film: Heroes, which had TV’s The Fonz (Henry Winkler) joining TV’s Gidget (Sally Fields) for a post-Nam feel-good road trip. Heroes was deservedly ignored while the cinema geeks are still enjoying William Devane rip a lowlife’s balls off with his hook for a hand.