Cult movies are impossible to identify until years after their release, and even then it apparently takes Quentin Tarantino to point them out to the rest of us. (That’s not entirely true, but we’ll let him think it is for now.) One of the director’s favorite films, possibly even *the* favorite depending who you ask, is John Flynn‘s 1977 revenge picture Rolling Thunder.
Having finally watched it I’d actually argue that labeling it as a “revenge picture,” which is how it’s been spoken of for over thirty years, is incorrect and ultimately reductive. Not that there isn’t some wonderfully wet and violent revenge action to be found here, but it’s hardly the film’s main focus or only strength.
William Devane stars as a Vietnam veteran recently released from years as a POW. He returns home to a wife, son and a small town that welcomes him back as a hero, but when he attracts the attention of some mean-spirited and desperate ruffians it leads to an assault that leaves him and his family for dead. Amateurs. He survives, but his wife, son and right hand aren’t as lucky.
So yeah, there’s some revenge coming.
“I remember that song from when I was alive.”
Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has just returned home from a tour of duty in Vietnam that saw an involuntary extension thanks to seven years spent in a POW camp. He’s happy enough to be home with his wife and son, in theory, but after years of suppressing his emotions his outward affections aren’t about to suddenly return now. The nights see him struggling to sleep, and the unsurprising revelation that his wife took up carnal relations with another man in his absence just adds to the distance. He spends his time recreating the exercise routines that kept him focused in captivity, and a conversation with his wife’s new beau turns into a sad, strange session of him encouraging the man to treat him like the Vietnamese did.
Clearly he’s having some difficulty re-acclimating.
He’s basically just waiting for a reason to snap, and that reason comes in the form of some petty thugs who invade his home in search of some quick cash. Rane awakens in the hospital to the news that his wife and son are dead and his hand has been violently removed from the rest of his body. He spends his recuperation time learning how to shoot one-handed, sharpening his new hook and investigating the killers. Once he’s ready he recruits fellow ex-POW Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and goes looking for payback.
The visual of the hook alongside the bloody third act are where the film earns its “revenge” tag, but the drama that comes before can’t be understated. Devane shows himself to be a legitimate actor here, something that may come as a surprise to viewers who only know him from his numerous supporting roles or his late-night infomercials strongly recommending you buy gold bullion. The character’s lack of emotion notwithstanding Devane sells Rane’s thousand-yard-stare and fiercely focused determination. He was lost as a failed family man, but he finds himself again with his finger on the trigger.
The script, originally by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) before being touched-up/revamped by Heywood Gould (The Boys from Brazil) never shies away from Rane’s troubles as a Vietnam vet. It’s never overdone either instead finding a balance between his attempts to simply find something resembling a calm happiness and his unavoidable breakdowns. Rane’s seemingly blank response to his wife and son is just his attempt at processing the pain, but he finds an actual source of joy in a local woman (Linda Haynes) who becomes even more useful in his quest for revenge. Devane allows glimmers of happiness here without ever letting go of the character’s intensity.
Director John Flynn (Defiance) finds some strong visuals in small town America and in Rane’s private moments of pain, but he shows an even better grasp of the action. The final shootout feels at once a well choreographed gunfight and a wonderfully messy free-for-all.
This is Devane’s show from beginning to end, but Jones brings some energy to his supporting role too. Sadly he’s entirely missing from most the film and only brought back for the third act fireworks, but he’s a joy to watch even in limited form. We also get a (too) brief appearance by Dabney Coleman which is never a bad thing.
Rolling Thunder released a year before the likes of higher profile Vietnam vet dramas Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, and it’s never really gotten its due in that post-war drama club. Remove the film’s third act and you have a story just as potentially powerful as those others, but with it the movie becomes an exciting and somewhat cathartic piece of revenge entertainment.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is the film’s North American HD debut (it was released on Blu in the UK last year), and it looks quite good. There is some expected grain in the picture alongside some unfortunate minor glitches, but overall the image is far sharper and cleaner than any of its previous DVD incarnations.
The special features are limited to some marketing materials and a series of interviews collected under a “Making of” banner.
- The Making of Rolling Thunder [21:49] – This featurette offers mix of interviews with Devane, Jones, Heywood Gould, Schrader and Billy Burton. They seem feel the film is pure revenge drama through and through, and while I disagree they’re probably more of an authority on the subject than I am. All the players are candid with Devane and Jones being particularly straight shooters. Devane even chastises the marketing dept for not taking advantage of the film’s hook… and he says it with a straight face too.
- Theatrical trailer, TV spot, radio spots and photo gallery
The Bottom Line
Rolling Thunder is a fine revenge film, but it’s actually a better drama. The violence, once it comes, is thrilling and well executed, but it’s the character work and overall theme that make the film’s effect a lasting one. Shout! Factory has done a fine job with their disc too making this highly recommended for genre fans whether that genre be “revenge” or “Vietnam vets having a hard time fitting back in to society.”
Buy Rolling Thunder on Blu-ray from Amazon