With the news that Tarantino’s latest will include some kind of homage to Rolling Thunder, I thought it was worth talking more about that movie. Rolling Thunder is a 1977 film you don’t hear much about these days. That’s a shame because it is an excellent revenge flick.
William Devane stars as recently released Vietnam POW, Major Charles Rane along with Army Sgt. Sergeant Johnny Vohden, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Chuck is reunited with his wife and son in Texas after 7 years in communist hands.
Things aren’t all peaches and cream for the Major though. During his first night home with his wife, she admits to him she had been having an affair with a local cop whom she intends to marry. A very common tale among real-life returned Vietnam POWs, it is sad to say. He isn’t surprised though, and determines that his son is the most important thing.
Later the town honors the Major by giving him a brand-new car and a silver dollar for every day he spent in captivity. A local barmaid presents this to him and confesses she’s a bit of a groupie of his. None of this makes much of a dent in Rane’s mood though. He’s suffering from a very serious case of being emotionally dead inside, and the PTSD from his captivity still deeply affects him.
Some local shitbags from the Tex/Mex border decide they want those silver dollars and catch the Major alone at his home. They try torturing him to get the money but the Major is so used to being abused, he just takes it all silently. He even endures a particularly gruesome piece of torture involving his hand. At about this time, his wife and son arrive home to see what’s going on. Immediately taken hostage, the son gives up the money to save his Dad. Once they get the money, the scumbags promptly shoot all three. They kill the cheating whore of a wife and the son, wounding the Major bad enough to appear dead.
While recovering in the hospital and getting used to his shiny new hook in place of where his hand used to be, he claims ignorance about the details of the robbers. Once out of the hospital, he starts some investigating of his own with the help of the barmaid. Once he determines the killers hang out at a whorehouse in Mexico, he goes and gets his friend Vohden to help him take his revenge. The film culminates in a hell of a shootout at the Mexican whorehouse, and it’s glorious.
John Milius said Schrader wrote the movie for Milius to direct but Milius turned it down, saying:
“I didn’t think I wanted to do something that dark at the time…Boy it was a good script, with wonderful stuff in it. Paul at his best.”
Eventual director John Flynn said in an interview:
“We knew we were doing something fairly bold. The producer, Lawrence Gordon, told me to shoot the garbage disposal scene like open-heart surgery, make it as bloody as I possibly could. So I did. When we submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for a rating, we expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent movies in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating!”
The film was originally produced and scheduled for release by Twentieth Century-Fox. The studio previewed it with an audience who had just watched the Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer. Rolling Thunder takes its time getting to the violence, and it’s better for it. This quiet early pacing lulled the test audience into a false sense of security. Flynn later explained:
“The first 20 minutes of the film were placid by design- Devane’s homecoming, reunited with his family. Then violence overtakes this family. In the space of two minutes, Devane’s hand is ground off and his wife and son are shot dead before his eyes.”
The preview audience did not react well to this. In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman characterized this 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.”
As a factoid, the film takes its name from Operation Rolling Thunder, the name of the offensive B-52 bombing of North Vietnam. Now you can impress your family at Thanksgiving this year with that knowledge.
I give this my highest recommendation.
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