Rolling Thunder: Taxi Driver’s Unloved Little Brother

Rolling Thunder (1977) was the film that almost was, and here's why...
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Rolling Thunder, the Vigilante Vietnam Vet film whose ‘hero’ has a claw for a hand and likes shooting Mexicans, is finally back from oblivion.

With a script by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader and a story concerning that old cinematic favourite the ‘Vigilante Vietnam Vet’ you’d have thought that the 1977 film Rolling Thunder could potentially have been a big hit. However, at a time when movies like Coming Home, the Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver itself were all the rage it was dumped by it’s studio (20th Century Fox) after a furious response at test screenings and was left to fester in the exploitation grindhouses, unreleased on video and unloved all but a few fervent fans.

It stars William Devane as Major Charles Rane who returns home from Vietnam to San Antonio in Texas after seven years in a Hanoi hell-hole (just like the Simpson’s Seymour Skinner). He is welcomed as a hero and given gift of a convertible Cadillac and cash from the grateful town. It’s not long, though, before he realises his former life no longer exists; his son doesn’t remember him and his wife has taken up with another man after giving him up for dead.

Initially the film has a sentimental ‘movie of the week’ feel and looks not unlike a badly-directed episode of Columbo. Then, about a third of the way in, a gang of Mexicans and mercenaries (lead by The Dukes of Hazzard’s Roscoe P Coltrane, no less) breaks into Rane’s house determined to steal the cash he was gifted. They beat him up, torture him and force his hand into the waste disposal before killing his wife and son and leaving him for dead - wounded and hand-less. It’s at this point that the film picks up a gear and becomes a straight-out revenge flick. After a period of recuperation, the major heads off down Mexico way with a sharpened metal claw for a hand, a faded local beauty queen for an accomplice and a stash of heavy artillery in the boot of his Caddy.

with Schrader supplying some fantastic dialogue and chillingly convincing performances it almost could have been a ‘proper movie’ contender

The rest you can probably guess – tracking down the baddies, life on the road with a messed-up chick, the final bloody dénouement – but what makes this film different is the dead-eyed determination of its central character (and that of the kill-happy Sergeant, played by an unfeasibly young Tommy Lee Jones, who joins him for the inevitable shoot-out). Devane never breaks his face, never loses his rag, never displays any emotion at all and it’s left to Rambo-style flashbacks showing the pain inflicted on him in Vietnam to explain how he ended up a vengeance-hungry automaton.

It’s easy to see why it’s lauded by Quentin Tarantino as it contains many elements of one of his beloved exploitation flicks and is as sloppily made as most of his favourite films, but with Schrader supplying some fantastic dialogue and chillingly convincing performances it almost could have been a ‘proper movie’ contender. Incidentally, it also contains what is possibly the first use of the now well-worn Vietnam cliché ‘While I was lying face down in the mud’, usually associated with Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski.

Rolling Thunder is now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-Ray and any fans of 60’s or 70’s American cinema should seek it out and stick it in their collection somewhere between Cutter’s Way and The Exterminator. Its not a film that is going to do a lot for the Mexican Tourist Board (every building south of the border seems to be either a sleazy bar or a sleazier brothel) but it’s one of those movies that feels like it would have been much better regarded had it not been allowed to slip through the net.

Rolling Thunder is released by Studio Canal on January 30th.

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