“San Antonio” written by Barry De Vorzon & performed by Denny Brooks.
Interesting Dated References: The entire movie is a showcase of 70s decor.
Best Line: Major Charles Rane, to his wife — “You’re not wearing a brassiere?” His wife in response — “No one wears them anymore.” Prostitute — “What the fuck are you doing?” Tommy Lee Jones in response — “I’m going to kill a bunch of people.”
Social Context: Rolling Thunder was one of the first major studio films to deal with the aftermath of Vietnam. Although a fairly extreme analysis of the effects of being a P.O.W., it does attempt to treat such issues with respect.
Summary: For right now I’m going to skip all the semiotics and behind the scenes shit and just review the movie. William Devane (that guy from all those T.V. shows) stars as Major Charles Rane, a ‘Nam P.O.W. returning home after seven years. Right off the bat this return home is supposed to be a big deal since a lot of people come out to greet him after he flies in. Once on the ground, he instructs his friend and fellow P.O.W. Cpl. Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) to put on his aviator shades if he was too fearful to face the crowd. Many of you may not remember this, but there was a time when aviator sunglasses made you look “cold and tough” instead of just “like an asshole.” After they deplane, Devane gives a poorly written prolific speech about America and his joy to be home. He then parts ways with Jones, meets up with his wife, son, and the curiously helpful policeman Cliff.
Once home, the movie switches from somewhat ham-fisted dramatics to an actually interesting character study. We watch Devane try to readjust to family life and get to know his son. These scenes are actually well written and don’t cross over into shitty exploitation territory. After Devane puts the kid to bed and gets a smoke and a beer, he and his wife discuss their future together. The wife reveals she has a new man (the curiously helpful policeman Cliff) and she wants a divorce. Devane, ever playing it cool and not one to be made a whining cuckold, just calmly accepts all this. Then his wife asks him what he’s going to do about it and he delivers the classic retort, “I’m just going to sit here.” It’s lines like this that make 70s movies so fucking awesome.
The next morning, at the counselor, we see that Devane is trying to take a positive attitude about the split from his family, although he discusses his feelings of displacement and the like. Then he goes to some type of awards ceremony and is given a brand new Cadillac convertible and about $2,500 worth of silver dollars. While at this celebration he meets Linda (played by nipple showcase Linda Haynes). Linda wore the Majors bracelet the whole time he was away, and has become a bit of an obsessed fan. That night, Devane and Cliff have a talk about life and the new family situation. Devane makes Cliff tie him up and torture him in some type of reenactment of his experiences in The ‘Nam. I guess this is yet another scene where we are being foretold how desensitized and tough Devane has become.
So the next day, Devane watches his kid play baseball from afar. Then he goes and has a beer with this Linda chick. She hits on him and stuff, which could be attractive if she didn’t look like a mix between Karen Black and Eric Stoltz. Upon his return to the homestead, Devane is accosted by thugs with totally awesome nick-names like T-Bird, Melio, and Automatic Slim. This band of hooligans led by some main guy have only one motivation: To find those silver dollars. Did I mention it was only $2,500 worth of silver dollars? Yeah, I know, that wasn’t even a fucking lot in 1977. They really should have upped the amount to make it more believable, especially considering what they do after they get it. Okay, so the elaborate torture involves five punches to the face and holding a lighter under his hand for 12 seconds. At that point the group decides Devane is too tough and they shove his hand in the garbage disposal. While this is going on, his wife and son come home, tell the thugs where the coins are, and are subsequently shot. They also shoot the now-handless Devane, but not before speaking really clearly about where they are going to meet up after things blow over.
When Devane wakes up in the hospital, Linda is by his side, and he learns his wife and child have died. Eventually he is released, quickly adjusts to using his new prosthetic arm, and picks up Linda and heads south to find “those guys.” The first thug they track down is Automatic Slim. Automatic Slim is played by the always awesome and ever present Luke Askew (RIP). He’s fucking tough in everything but is easily subdued here by getting stabbed in the genitals by Devane’s hook arm. I think this was before using prosthesis to mutilate a mans genitals was considered a fetish, so there’s nothing really erotic about it. Oh, after he stabs Automatic Slim in the genitals, Devane and Linda just speed away. It seems like this would be a bad idea and a way to tip everyone off, but I guess that’s part of the plan. All this time there’s a lame subplot about Cliff abusing his police powers to find out where Devane is.
The next morning Devane and Linda have some target practice into the river and we get Linda’s sob story about her childhood. Meanwhile, Cliff stumbles upon the group of thugs and manages to shoot three of them. Then Automatic Slim shoots him dead, despite his injured genitals. Automatic Slim is tough. In the early morning, Devane gets all dressed up in full military regalia and leaves Linda stranded at the hotel. He goes to Tommy Lee Jones’s house and listens to a hilariously out of place diatribe about what a bunch of bullshit American-made products are. Devane and Jones suit up and head south to get their vengeance. Once in the whorehouse where the thugs are holed up, a rather excessive shootout begins. All the thugs get shot, Automatic Slim proving the toughest, and Jones and Devane each take a few bullets. They walk away though, and all the thugs are dead.
Rolling Thunder was written by Paul Schrader who at the time was on fucking fire after the success of Taxi Driver. At the same time, everything he had ever written was being adapted or pursued. This led to several great films including Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, and Raging Bull, all in a few year span. So considering that list, why has Rolling Thunder fallen into obscurity? And also, why were parts of it so shitty? The bottom line seems to be that after the script was purchased it was rewritten extensively by the studio. According to the internet, Schrader discusses this in the out of print book The Craft of The Screenwriter. This would explain why the movie bounces from dark character study to cheesy revenge fantasy from scene to scene. The parts of the film that contain Schrader’s characteristics are very good. Following a lot of the same emotional vacancies Taxi Driver does. The film also bears a lot of similarities to the 1972 book First Blood, which of course was later made into the film of the same name. Rolling Vengeance is practically First Blood on PCP. My guess is the studio beefed up the shitty romantic subplot and simplified some of the dialogue and in the process made the movie take on a different more exploitative tone. Granted Schrader’s work always treaded the thin line between solid film and mindless exploitation, the rewrites in Rolling Vengeance seemed to push it over the edge into exploitation. No matter how off-kilter the movie goes, it is still highly regarded among B-movie aficionados and fucking dorks.
Poster and Box Art There was really only this one poster for Rolling Thunder, which is totally 70s and fucking awesome.