Rolling Thunder (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Rolling Thunder
Rolling Thunder.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Flynn
Produced byNorman T. Herman
Written byPaul Schrader
Heywood Gould
Story byPaul Schrader
StarringWilliam Devane
Tommy Lee Jones
Linda Haynes
James Best
Dabney Coleman
Luke Askew
Music byBarry De Vorzon
CinematographyJordan Cronenweth
Edited byFrank P. Keller
Distributed byAmerican International Pictures
Release date
October 7, 1977 (Los Angeles)[1]
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million

Rolling Thunder is a 1977 American neo-noir[2] action thriller directed by John Flynn, produced by Norman T. Herman, and written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, based on a story by Schrader. The film stars William Devane in the lead role alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes, James Best, Dabney Coleman and Luke Askew in supporting roles.

Rolling Thunder was released on October 7, 1977 in United States and it was also released in more 7 countries. Upon release, the film received generally positive reviews from critics. The film received praise for its action sequences, atmosphere, direction, music and cast performances, however, it was criticized for its pace and violent climax. In addition to its critical success, the film was also a box office success with an estimated revenue of $130 million against its $5 million production budget.


In 1973, Major Charles Rane returns home to San Antonio with Sergeant Johnny Vohden, and two other soldiers, after spending seven years as a POW in Hanoi. He finds a home very different from the one he left when he meets his wife Janet, his son Mark, and local policeman Cliff, waiting to drive him home. Rane soon realizes that his son does not remember him, and that Cliff seems overly familiar with Janet and Mark. Janet admits that she has become engaged to Cliff and has no plans to break it off, despite still having feelings for Rane. Rane stoically accepts this, but privately reacts by self-imposing the same institutionalized daily regime he had in captivity.

The town is intent on giving Rane a hero's homecoming, and at a grand celebration, he is presented with a red Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars – one for every day he was a captive plus one for luck – by the 'Texas belle' Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), who has worn his ID bracelet since he left. Shortly after, Cliff attempts to make peace with Rane; the latter, however, seems resigned to losing his wife, but he is determined not to lose his son and makes efforts to build a relationship.

Linda spots Rane in his new Cadillac at a gas station and invites him to have a drink at the bar where she works. She makes advances toward him, but Rane is emotionally distant and perhaps even unable to connect with anyone.

When Rane next returns home, four border outlaws are waiting for him: "The Texan", "Automatic Slim", "T Bird" and "Melio". They demand the silver dollars and torture Rane to get them. Rane is totally unresponsive, having flashbacks to his torture in Hanoi as they beat him. The gang resorts to drastic measures and shoves Rane's hand down a garbage disposal, mangling it. At this point Janet and Mark return, and are immediately taken hostage. Rane lies with a mangled arm on the kitchen floor while his son finds and hands over the silver dollars. The gang shoots all three of them, leaving them for dead. Rane survives but his wife and son do not.

Several weeks later, Rane is convalescing in a hospital where Linda and Vohden visit him separately. Vohden has signed on for another ten years in the Airborne Division, due to his uncertainty as to what else to do with his life. Although he gives no details to the police, Rane has ideas regarding the identities of his attackers and prepares to take vengeance. His first move upon discharge is to saw down a double-barreled shotgun and sharpen the prosthetic hook which has replaced his right hand.

Before leaving for Mexico, Rane visits the bar where Linda works and invites her to go with him. She leaves with him, having no idea she is accompanying him on a vendetta. He sends her into a seedy Mexican bar to look for "Fat Ed." She is taken into a backroom where a sleazy lowlife named Lopez immediately begins to harass her. Rane comes to her rescue while also extracting some information. Linda now realizes Rane's intention and though she is alarmed, continues to help. Linda is sent into another seedy bar in a nearby town, as before. Rane locates Automatic Slim and a vicious bar fight ensues; Rane only escapes by wounding Automatic Slim in the crotch with his hook hand.

Conducting his own investigation back in Texas, Cliff finds the sawn-off barrel of Rane's shotgun and realizes Rane's plan. Using his police contacts to trace Rane's car, Cliff finds his way to the Mexican border town in which Rane encountered Lopez. Cliff is led to Lopez, and they scuffle. After Lopez leads Cliff on a foot-chase through a stockyard into an abandoned house, a gunfight ensues. Cliff shoots and kills Lopez and two other attackers before Automatic Slim sneaks in behind him, calls to him and shoots him as he turns to respond. As a wounded Cliff crawls toward his dropped weapon, Automatic Slim mercilessly shoots him again, killing him.

Linda and Rane begin to connect further while on the road, with Linda talking about her tomboy past, and Rane talking about things he liked before the war. In a motel room in El Paso, she tries to talk Rane out of revenge one last time. Despite his experiences in Hanoi and of losing his son and wife, Rane may not be as emotionally dead as he seems. Rane leaves a sleeping Linda behind in the motel (with a sizable sum of money), and despite her earlier insistence that she would call the police, she cannot bring herself to follow through, as she hangs up the phone when the police answer her call.

Rane, dressed in full uniform, goes to Vohden's house. Vohden, emotionally distanced from his family, asks no questions and is dressed in his Army uniform and ready to go in an instant. Rane plans to attack the remaining members of the gang in a whorehouse. Vohden goes in first and picks up a prostitute named Candy. Once they are upstairs, Rane takes out a guard in the rear yard and goes in the back entrance. Rane signals to Vohden and kicks off a bloody, violent shootout. After surprising The Texan with a hooker, Rane declares "It's your time, boy" before shooting him. T-Bird, Melio and several other men are dealt with likewise before the final standoff between Rane and Automatic Slim. Rane kills him, emotionlessly shooting him several times. Bloodied and wounded, Rane and Vohden, supporting each other, walk out of the brothel.



The film was originally written in 1973 for AIP, where Larry Gordon was head of production. Gordon took the script with him when he left for Columbia, and for a time Schrader was going to direct. However that fell through and the film was set up at 20th Century Fox.[3]

Schrader's script was rewritten by Heywood Gould. It starred William Devane who John Flynn says "back then they were priming ... [him] to be a big film star."[4]

The movie was shot in San Antonio, Texas in 31 days. Flynn:

We knew we were doing something fairly bold. The producer, Lawrence Gordon, told me to shoot the garbage disposal scene like open-heart surgery, make it as bloody as I possibly could. So I did. When we submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for a rating, we expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent movies in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating![4]


Test Screening[edit]

The film was originally produced and scheduled for release by Twentieth Century-Fox. The studio previewed it in San Jose in an audience who had just watched the Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer.

Director John Flynn later explained, "The first 20 minutes of the film were placid by design -- Devane's homecoming, reunited with his family. Then violence overtakes this family. In the space of two minutes, Devane's hand is ground off and his wife and son are shot dead before his eyes."[5]

The preview audience did not react well to this. In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman characterized this as "the most violent sneak reaction of recent years ... the audience actually got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present among them."[6]

"The lobby looked like Guadalcanal," recalled producer Larry Gordon. "Which, by the way, is a salesman's dream."[3]

Flynn says Twentieth Century-Fox screened the film for psychiatrists in an attempt to learn what it was that so disturbed the audience. Recalls Flynn, "They determined that it was like a symbolic castration. So, seeing it incited a (negative) reaction akin to the sneak of the original Exorcist ...Home is supposedly the place where everyone feels safest. When people are reminded that the home is vulnerable, which we all know it is, that's disturbing."[5]

Flynn says, "There were several discussions about what Fox should do with Rolling Thunder -- cut it, re-edit it or what."[5] Fox insisted on making cuts to the film but Gordon refused and he took the movie to AIP to distribute.[3]

William Devane later recalled:

It probably would've made a big difference if they'd actually released it properly. But when they tested it... the Mexicans set the theater on fire! They were really, really, really down on it. So then the studio backed way off, and it never got the release it would've if they'd really jumped on it and supported it. But I didn't understand how to operate in those days. I still don't know how to operate. [Laughs.] But a movie star guy would've done everything he could to force them to release it properly, you know? And Tommy [Lee Jones] and I were just starting. God, that was the first featured role I ever did. Good picture, though. It's a really good picture... You know, they tried to do the same thing to Warren Beatty with Bonnie and Clyde. But Warren was hip enough and smart enough and knew how to put enough pressure on them to get them to release that picture. And I didn't know how to do that. I didn't have any idea.[7]

AIP Release[edit]

Flynn says American International Pictures "distributed it, as is, without re- cutting it. It made them a fortune."[5]

For reasons still not convincingly stated, the film was released in Spain in 1982 as El expreso de Corea ("The Korean Express"), sometimes spelled in the media with a hyphen (ex-preso), which translates as "The former prisoner [literally, convict] from Korea". A Korean War setting was included as well in the Spanish dubbing instead of the original Vietnam War scenario. A possible reason could be the title's slight similarity with the hugely successful El expreso de medianoche (Midnight Express), which was released earlier in Spain. However, the replacement of Vietnam by Korea is still left unexplained—even more so considering the fact that the time span of the Korean War, 1950–1953, conflicts with the alleged 7-year stay as POWs in the camp and the actual 1973 setting of the film.

Critical response[edit]

Upon release, Rolling Thunder received praise for its action sequences, atmosphere, direction, music and cast performances, but was criticized for its pace and violent climax. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a "Fresh" rating of 86% based on 14 reviews with an audience rating of 78% (Liked It).[8] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote in his review, "Flynn's crisp, laconic direction and evocative use of Southern Texas locations transform Rolling Thunder, now at area theaters, into a more distinctive exploitation movie than it deserves to be."[9] Vincent Canby of The New York Times noted that "the movie has some good things, but in the way it has been directed by John Flynn it moves so easily and sort of foolishly toward its violent climax, that all the tension within the main character Charlie has long since escaped the film."[10] A review in Variety noted, "Its excellent cast performs well, but not well enough; Paul Schrader's story is strong, but not strong enough; and the violence will be too much for some and not enough for others. In sum it neither rolls nor thunders, but with luck, it might just stumble on to a portion of the audience that hailed Schrader's 'Taxi Driver.'"[11] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three stars out of four and wrote that "what I like about 'Rolling Thunder' is not the predictable orgy of violence that concludes the picture, but what goes on before—the return of the veteran to his hometown and disjointed family.[12] ... I liked its portrayal of Devane's state of mind. The emotional violence he suffers is more stunning than any physical torture."[13] He ranked it #10 on his year-end list of the best films of 1977.[13] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times slammed the film as "one of the most revolting exploitation pictures to come along in some time" and called it "some kind of ultimate in cynical calculation. The whole numbing predicament of the POW is perceptively, credibly depicted—but only to set up the carnage that follows. Surely, the POWs don't deserve this kind of exploitation on the screen."[14]

Quentin Tarantino has called Rolling Thunder one of his favorite films.[15] Rolling Thunder Pictures, a company founded by Tarantino that briefly distributed reissues of cult films, was named after this film.

Home media[edit]

The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD in the United Kingdom by STUDIOCANAL on January 30, 2012. The film was released on Manufactured On Demand DVD by MGM [16] in January 2011. The film was released on Blu-ray in the United States by Shout! Factory on May 28, 2013.

The film is rated R16 in New Zealand for graphic violence, sex scenes and offensive language.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Rolling Thunder - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 26, 2019.
  2. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  3. ^ a b c LARRY GORDON ROLLS HIS DICE Taylor, Clarke. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 08 Oct 1978: n35.
  4. ^ a b Harvey F. Chartand (2005). "Interview with John Flynn". Shock Cinema. Archived from the original on February 16, 2015. Retrieved February 16, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Kelley, Bill (30 June 1991). "VILLAINS HIT CLOSE TO HOME IN SOME FILMS". Sun Sentinel. p. 2F.
  6. ^ Trivia for Rolling Thunder at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
  7. ^ Harris, Will (1 October 2015). "William Devane on The Grinder, 24, Alfred Hitchcock, and Ava Gardner". The A.V. Club.
  8. ^ Rolling Thunder, retrieved 2017-10-10
  9. ^ Arnold, Gary (29 October 1977). ""Rolling Thunder": Twisted Violence". Washington Post.
  10. ^ Canby, Vincent (October 15, 1977). "Rolling Thunder' Film, Few Claps". The New York Times.
  11. ^ "Film Reviews: Rolling Thunder". Variety. October 5, 1977. 28.
  12. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 6, 1977). "'Rolling Thunder' hits home despite its storm of gore". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 5.
  13. ^ a b Siskel, Gene (January 1, 1978). "'Annie Hall' gives a laughing lift to year of space races". Chicago Tribune. Section 6, p. 4.
  14. ^ Thomas, Kevin (October 8, 1977). "'Thunder' Lets Bloodbath Roll". Los Angeles Times. Part II, p. 7.
  15. ^ BFI | Sight & Sound | Top Ten Poll 2002 - How the directors and critics voted Archived April 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "MGM to Release Slew of Previously Unreleased DVDs". Retrieved January 21, 2011.

External links[edit]