Rolling Thunder Review
Denny Brooks’ ballad San Antone would appear to have a special hold on the makers of cult movies from the late seventies and early eighties. You can hear it play during the pre-credits sequence to William Peter Blatty’s wonderfully nutty The Ninth Configuration and it makes two appearances in John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder, once over the opening titles and again as the final credits roll. It’s a song about homecoming - “San Antone, it’s really good to see ya” - a fitting subject matter given that Flynn’s film deals with two former prisoners of war back on American soil for the first time in seven years. Yet the Brooks song, with its piano-led country arrangement, is a sentimental tune. He sings of “rolling hills”, “golden memories” and, essentially, treats the city as though it were the subject of a love song: “You’ve been on my mind”, “You sure look good to me”, and so on. Rolling Thunder has little time for sentimentality, nostalgia or love - and this irony clearly isn’t lost on the filmmakers. These men have had to endure years or torture at the hands of the Vietcong. Both they and their families were unsure as to whether they’d ever see one and other again. They’ve changed over time, and so to have their loved ones. San Antone may very well “sure look good”, but that’s hardly going to make this homecoming any easier.
The POWs were US Air Force, shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1966. William Devane plays Major Charles Rane, with a young-ish pre-fame Tommy Lee Jones getting an early, and significant, supporting role as Corporal Johnny Vohden. The San Antonio resident is Rane; Vohden hails from El Paso, leaving Jones to make quite the impression during those opening minutes before disappearing for a little while. Later on we hear how the men would refer to their pre-capture existence as the time when they were “alive”, the insinuation being that something within them has died since. Nowhere is this more perfectly captured than in Jones’ shambling, dead-eyed performance. He gets few words, but he doesn’t need them. Three exchanges (two with Rane, one with his girlfriend and family he hasn’t seen for those seven years) are all that’s required to understand that this is a shell of a man, a complete shadow of his former self.
Not that the Major is faring much better himself. He may be the superior officer and therefore show a little stoicism to his Corporal, as well as some advice (hide behind your sunglasses if you can’t face up to these people), but he has his own demons - and revelations - to face. His son, a toddler at the time of his capture, neither recognises nor remembers him. His wife has since taken up with a local lawman and intends to marry him. Major Rane is left to sleep in the shed; tools and firearms adorn the walls, whilst black and white flashbacks to ill-treatment plague his dreams. His solidarity is underscored with a low-key late night conversation with his wife: their chat begins with talk of brassieres and mini skirts but soon turns to her infidelity - he listens for as long as he can take, but that doesn’t last too long. The fact that the scene has been intentionally lit as dark as possible by d.o.p. Jordan Cronenweth only serves to make us hang on to the words - and the increasingly long pauses - all the more. Brooks didn’t sing about any of this in his song.
More to the point, most filmmakers didn’t usually talk about any of this in their films. Rolling Thunder is, on the surface, a revenge movie and an action flick, with things taking a turn for the worse after Rane is violently attacked by a gang of thieves and sees his wife and son executed in front of him. Yet it’s also one of the first mainstream films to take the Vietnam veteran seriously. Certainly, there had been plenty of serious documentaries about the war: In the Year of the Pig, Winter Soldier, Hearts and Minds, John Pilger’s The Quiet Mutiny for World in Action. And there had also been Michael Grigsby’s I Was a Soldier, a stunning portrait of three young men from Texas haunted by their experiences as they struggle to return to their everyday lives. But a fictional equivalent was yet to exist; the approach was allusive rather than direct or, in the case of John Wayne’s The Green Berets, misguidedly hawkish. It would take the 1978 pair of The Deer Hunter and Coming Home - and the immense number of awards they both garnered - to force a change.
Rolling Thunder didn’t pick up any awards. It was ‘presented’ by Samuel Z. Arkoff and distributed by his American International Pictures during the same year that they handled the likes of Holocaust 2000 and Empire of the Ants. In other words it has the air of an exploitation picture, one that’s been enhanced over the years thanks to the endorsement of Quentin Tarantino. The temptation, therefore, is to lump the film in with such eighties action movies as The Exterminator, the Missing in Action series or, most obviously, the Rambo flicks as they moved further and further away from their David Morrell source. These films posit the Vietnam veteran as killing machine; sometimes he’s a psychopath, sometimes he’s the good guy, but either way he prompts a succession of violence on the screen. The same is essentially true of Rane and Vohden in Rolling Thunder, especially during its final act, yet there’s one very clear distinction to be made. Those Norris movies and so forth are, in the vast majority of cases, nothing more than silly entertainment. And Rolling Thunder most certainly isn’t silly. It may look like one of these films, but it acts seriously.
We must surely attribute some of this to original screenwriter Paul Schrader. He retains a story and co-writer credit but saw his work significantly re-written by Heywood Gould (who would later pen, amongst others, Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Nevertheless, similarities between Rolling Thunder and another Schrader script, Taxi Driver, are hard to ignore. Travis Bickle was also a veteran (the film never states this explicitly, but Schrader has remarked repeatedly in interviews that this was the intent) and a man who exacts, by his own logic, a bloody revenge. Furthermore, for all of its delving into the underbelly of New York and for all the violence of its climax, Taxi Driver is never viewed as a thriller, a crime drama or an action movie, and rightly so. If Rolling Thunder had the bigger budget and the more reputable production company would it have gotten the same treatment?
Major Rane is as intriguing a character as Bickle too. It may seem odd to favourably mention Devane (a future regular on the opening credits to Knot’s Landing) alongside Robert De Niro in his prime, but there’s an everyman quality about him here that works particularly well. He doesn’t look like a film star - those crooked teeth are enough to prevent any ideas otherwise - and he doesn’t behave like a film star. Upon his return home Rane attracts the attentions of a young-ish barmaid played by Linda Haynes. Their relationship forms a major part of Rolling Thunder, yet it’s a far from conventional one. For starters it lacks any kind of discernible romantic edge; it becomes increasingly clear to both the audience and her that she’s being taken advantage of (a mere tool to aid in his revenge), and when they do finally end up in bed, he abandons her and Haynes exits from the rest of the picture.
Smaller details also arise such as the manner in which Rane states that his revenge is for his dead son without ever mentioning his dead wife. It would appear that her infidelities killed off any lasting affection for her, which isn’t an especially heroic characteristic. We also see him heeding that earlier advice to Vohden too, with regards to the sunglasses when not being able to face up to things. The ordinary man is slowly being eroded away: first his marriage was taken away from him, then his wife and child (and right hand in a particularly nasty incident), and now his mental is increasingly slipping too. Who does he resemble more - Travis Bickle or John Rambo?
All of this psychological detail and these deft character touches never disturb the momentum, however. Rolling Thunder is a lean piece of filmmaking thanks to one of the US’ most underrated directors, John Flynn. Admittedly he didn’t always get to helm the best of scripts, yet there’s never any doubting the efficiency of the likes of Lock Up (the very silly but hugely enjoyable Stallone-in-prison flick) or Out for Justice (one of the very few watchable Steven Seagal films out there). Indeed, when he had the material - as in 1973 heist thriller The Outfit or 1987’s Best Seller, which paired James Woods with Brian Dennehy to wonderful effect - then the results were excellent, whilst a low-key TV movie such as 1999’s Absence of the Good could be elevated to the status of unassuming gem. In fact, unassuming is an apt description for Flynn’s output as a whole. Descriptions of the director always err towards “calm” and “quiet”, and so it is that he never seems to get in the way of his pictures. Nowhere do we see this more obviously than in Rolling Thunder - a film that delivers both in terms of the basic plot mechanics (it retains the structure of a revenge movie, after all) and the more in-depth concerns. It has the strongest claim to being his finest work.
Rolling Thunder is currently available in the US as part of MGM’s ‘Limited Edition On-Demand’ range, ie as a DVD-R, and this despite Quentin Tarantino’s repeated and vocal endorsements. Thankfully, here in the UK we are getting a much better deal with StudioCanal opting for a ‘double play’ release incorporating both DVD and Blu-ray. The latter was supplied for review and so it is this disc which will be considered below…
There’s a note accompanying the Amazon entry for the US version stating that has not been remastered or restored specifically for that release but instead using the best-quality master currently available. I may need to be corrected on this, but it would appear that the new Blu-ray utilises the same source. There are instances of damage throughout, mostly in the form of tiny specks or scratches though occasionally a bit of water damage makes itself known too. Any scenes involving optical tricks - the title sequence or the numerous long fades - also show signs of heavy wear. What we have then is serviceable enough without ever truly impressing. The colours are strong and the image does as well as it can with Cronenweth’s preference for barely-lit scenes, but this isn’t the stunning presentation some were perhaps hoping for. Indeed, were it not for the cult status you can easily imagine StudioCanal opting for a DVD-only release. With that said there is nothing wrong the 1080p AVC transfer itself. The original aspect ratio is in place and the grain appears as you would expect without prompting any untoward artefacting or compression issues. The soundtrack is similarly unrestored, but mostly acceptable. Again signs of damage and wear do make themselves known, and also be aware that it can be very quiet particularly during the more intimate dialogue scenes. There are no additional subtitles available, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
The special features emphasise the cult-ish nature of the film. The original trailer - all scratched and soft - appears twice: once in its original form, and again with Hostel director Eli Roth delivering an introduction and commentary. The original TV spot also finds a place. Pleasingly we also get a 10-minute interview with Linda Haynes, who retired from acting only a few years after Rolling Thunder. She talks of her marriage at the age of 16, her dropping out of high school, and her accidental move in acting which began with a wordless part in In Like Flint. She also relates her unhappy time spent filming Latitude Zero in Tokyo and her fonder memories of Rolling Thunder. Interestingly, Tarantino tried to coax her out of retirement for the episode of ER that he directed in 1995. At the time she didn’t know who he was so refused! Conversely, the final extra is something of a disappointment. Heywood Gould is on commentary duties, with Roy Frumkes (the writer of Street Trash) on hand to ask the key questions and prompt the key memories. There’s nothing particularly bad about this track is simply that Gould is too diplomatic and too respectful in his answers and recollections that we never really get any genuine meat. Ultimately his “I couldn’t say”-type responses become a little frustrating and Frumkes never opts for a different approach meaning we’re faced with the worst kind of commentary: a dull one. If only Paul Schrader could have been persuaded…