Thunder Road (film)

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Thunder Road
Thunder road42.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Arthur Ripley
Produced by Robert Mitchum
Written by Robert Mitchum (story)
James Atlee Phillips
Walter Wise
Starring Robert Mitchum
Gene Barry
Music by Jack Marshall
Robert Mitchum (song)
Don Raye (song)
Cinematography David Ettenson
Alan Stensvold
Edited by Harvey Clermont
D.R.M. Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • May 10, 1958 (1958-05-10)
Running time
93 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Thunder Road is a black and white 1958 dramacrime film about running moonshine in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 1950s. It was directed by Arthur Ripley and starred Robert Mitchum, who also produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay, and is rumored to have directed much of the film himself. He also co-wrote (with Don Raye) the theme song, "The Ballad of Thunder Road".

The film became a cult classic and continued to play at drive-in movie theaters in some Southeastern markets through the 1970s and 1980s.


Korean War veteran Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) works in the family moonshine business— delivering the illegal liquor his father distills to clandestine distribution points throughout the south in his souped-up hot rod. However, Lucas has more problems than evading the U.S. Treasury agents ("revenooers"), led by determined newcomer Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Lucas is concerned that his younger brother Robin (James Mitchum), who is also his mechanic, will be tempted into following in his footsteps and becoming a moonshine runner.

A well-funded outside gangster, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), tries to gain control of the independent local moonshine producers and their distribution points, and is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. The stakes rise when an attempt by Kogan to kill Lucas results in the death of a government agent as well as another moonshine driver.

In a romantic subplot, Lucas becomes involved with nightclub singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith). He is unaware one of the neighbor girls, Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight), has a crush on him and fears for his life.

When a series of government raids destroy their hidden stills, Lucas' father and the other local moonshines shut down production "for a spell" to let the government deal with Kogan in its own time, but Lucas is forced by circumstances and his own code of honor to make a final run.

Factual background[edit]

The film was based loosely on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have crashed to his death on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. Per Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro, the incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum.


Role of Robin Doolin[edit]

The role of Robin Doolin, Lucas's younger brother, was originally written for Elvis Presley per Mitchum's request. Mitchum personally submitted the script to Elvis in Los Angeles.

The singer was eager to play the role, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker demanded Elvis be paid an enormous sum of money, more than the entire budget for the movie, which ended negotiations.

Mitchum's son James got the part, which worked well due to the close physical resemblance.


In the film, Mitchum drove a souped-up 1951 Ford 2-door sedan hot-rod with a custom tank in the back for moonshine and later a 1957 Ford coupe with the same alterations. The '51 Ford was modified with a '49 hood and grill and the rear taillight trim was removed. The film's dialogue refers to the car as a '50, but it is not, although at least one exterior shot, when the car spills oil on the road, is of the trunk of a '50. (during the "oil spill" scene it is revealed that a series of nozzles attached to a pipe hidden by the rear bumper, is controlled by a switch under the dash, that activates a solenoid to release the flow of of my favorite scenes, and I probably watched the film 10-15 times in the theater.)

Most of the scenes were filmed in Asheville, North Carolina Highway 19 and others at Lake Lure. Some scenes were filmed in Beech, east of Weaverville. Scenes include Reems Creek Road, Sugar Creek Road and the Beech Community Center. Some scenes were actual local moonshine drivers shot with a camera mounted on a pickup tailgate.

The stunt coordinator was Cary Loftin. The stunt team included Ray Austin, Neil Castes Sr., Robert Hoy and Dale Van Sickel.

The movie's theme song, which is titled "Whippoorwill" in the film's opening credits, was later recorded by Mitchum and became a popular single record, although Mitchum's rendition, retitled "The Ballad of Thunder Road" is not the one in the film itself.

Cultural references[edit]

Bruce Springsteen said at a 1978 concert that the name of his song "Thunder Road" had been inspired by seeing a poster of the movie, though he didn't see the movie itself.[1]


  1. ^ "Thunder Road performance from Capitol Theatre, Passaic, N.J., Sept. 19, 1978". Video posted on bruchee. Retrieved 2011-06-23. 

External links[edit]