Rolling Thunder is the story of Major Charles Ranes (William Devane), a Vietnam vet who returns from years of imprisonment and torture in a Vietcong POW camp to his home in Texas. He and his prison mate Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones) are greeted at the airport with a heroes welcome and Charles is given a brand new Cadillac and a suitcase of silver dollars in honour of his return. Charles is not the same man who went to war though and even comments that when in prison they referred to the time before imprisonment as when they were alive; the implication that he is now dead rings true in the cold performance by William Devane and the hollow and dark life that the character now lives.
Charles’ wife has moved on and is planning to divorce him and remarry, and his son cannot connect with this stranger that he cannot even remember. Charles seems unaffected by this though, as when his wife tells him she has been with another man he just sits and listens. Haunted by the memories of the torture he received at the POW camp, shown in abruptly cut black and white flashbacks, Charles is clearly suffering from post traumatic stress and has retreated inward, appearing almost dead inside.
When a gang invades his home demanding to know where the silver dollars are he refuses to tell them , leading to them putting his hand into a garbage disposal in a effort to make him talk. Charles has been tortured before though, previously disturbingly commenting to his wife’s new lover that the only way to beat the torture is to “learn to love the rope”. When the gang fail to make him talk they shoot him, his wife and his son. Charles alone recovers and refuses to tell the cops who killed his wife and son and robbed him of his hand. Instead when he recovers he embarks on a journey of revenge with a shotgun in one hand and his other replaced with a hook.
He forms a new relationship with Linda (Linda Haynes) who claims to be his groupie, a worn out blonde bar maid who is reluctant to get caught up in Charles’ revenge mission but goes along regardless. She comments at one point, “Why do I always end up with crazy men?” to which Charles replies, “‘Cause that’s the only kind that’s left.” Charles’ view of post-Vietnam America does not have much good in it, America is bleak and morally bankrupt. The pair head South to Mexico in order to find the gang, ending up near the home of Johnny who Charles eventually enlists to help him. Johnny is also living a hollow existence with his family who ramble on whilst Johnny sits coldly waiting, alert and like Charles, armed.
When Charles arrives at the house to pick up Johnny to help in the final showdown that provides a thrilling if disturbing climax to the film, Johnny is not surprised, he does not ask questions, he just puts on his uniform, grabs a shotgun and follows orders. Jonny is conditioned for war, in his mind he is still at war, he has not returned to life, he remains the walking dead. When in the whorehouse in the climactic scene and pulling out his shotgun, a prostitute asks him “What the fuck are you doing?” and he just replies simply “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people.” This is exactly what Charles and Johnny do, exacting vengeance upon those that mistreated Charles and in the process releasing through cathartic violence the rage bottled up inside them.
With clear mirrors to Taxi Driver in the dead inside, revenge motivated male protagonist, the explosively violent finale and the doomed romantic relationship, Paul Schrader (who wrote the film’s first draft) is revisiting similar material but the two films are also markedly different. One distinct difference is in the focus on back story; it is hinted that Travis Bickle was in Vietnam and he clearly had a troubled past but, unlike Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder dedicates almost half the film to exploring the main character’s past and the adjustments he has to make to an old life that is no longer relevant. The audience of Rolling Thunder also gets a chance to understand Charles in a different way to how an audience relates to Travis. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese directs with an excess of style, and the addition of a sweeping Bernard Hermann score. John Flynn’s direction on Rolling Thunder, however, is economical, gritty and follows in the tradition of directors such as Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah with a hard, violent and grimy aesthetic and a genuine and authentic approach to storytelling.
Rolling Thunder is often thought of as a exploitation picture, a 70s violent B movie and a nasty revenge piece. It can indeed be viewed in this way but it is also something much more interesting. Rolling Thunder says so much about the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, about the failure of Vietnam vets to reconnect to the life that has moved on without them and it is also a brutal story of two men who no longer feel alive, exacting revenge for the suffering they have felt. A perfect embodiment of the 70s despair following the optimism of the 60s and a fascinating focus on the struggle of many to move past this dark post-Vietnam period.
Rolling Thunder has been somewhat difficult to see since its release with out-of-print VHS copies and quickly deleted DVDs making it something of a rarity. To have the film now widely available seems like some kind of miracle and to see the film in such good condition in this HD transfer makes it all the special. The brilliance of Jordan Cronenweth’s extremely low light cinematography, something he would go on to use to further great effect in Blade Runner, looks superb, with inky black shadows consuming many of the frames.
The Blu-ray also includes a commentary from co-writer Heywood Gould which is anecdotal but interesting, an interview with star Linda Haynes, the Trailers From Hell commentary from Eli Roth and a TV Spot for the film.