Rolling Thunder (film)

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Rolling Thunder
Rolling Thunder.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Flynn
Produced by Norman T. Herman
Written by Paul Schrader
Heywood Gould
Story by Paul Schrader
Starring William Devane
Tommy Lee Jones
Linda Haynes
James Best
Dabney Coleman
Luke Askew
Music by Barry De Vorzon
Edited by Frank P. Keller
Distributed by American International Pictures
Release date
  • October 1977 (1977-10)[1]
Running time
95 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5 million[2]

Rolling Thunder is a 1977 film starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. The film was directed by John Flynn. The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould.


In 1973, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home to San Antonio with Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), 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 (Lisa Richards), his son Mark (Jordan Gerler), and local policeman Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), waiting to drive him home. Rane soon realizes that his son doesn't 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 Forchet 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" (James Best), "Automatic Slim" (Luke Askew) and a couple of Mexican thugs, "T Bird" (Charles Escamilla) and "Melio" (Pete Ortega). 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 (James Victor) 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 (Cassie Yates). 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.


  • William Devane as Major Charles Rane
  • Tommy Lee Jones as Johnny Vohden
  • Linda Haynes as Linda Forchet
  • James Best as Texan
  • Dabney Coleman as Maxwell
  • Lisa Richards as Janet
  • Luke Askew as Automatic Slim
  • Lawrason Driscoll as Cliff
  • James Victor as Lopez
  • Cassie Yates as Candy
  • Jordan Gerler as Mark
  • Jane Abbott as Sister
  • Jerry Brown as Patrolman #1
  • Jacque Burandt as Bebe
  • Anthony Castillo as Street Urchin
  • Charles Escamilla as T Bird
  • Rudy T. Gonzales as Bartender
  • Robert K. Guthrie as Reporter #3
  • Ray Gutierrez as Tex-Mex
  • James N. Harrell as Grandpa
  • Randy Herman as Sanchez
  • Michael Nakamura as The Torturer
  • Pete Ortega as Melio
  • Paul A. Partain as Brother-in-law
  • James Conner Pribble as Patrolman #2
  • Cheyenne Rivera as Gato
  • Carol Sowa as Betty Ann
  • Robert Raymond Reyes as Reporter #2
  • Arturo R. Tamez, Jr. as Bartender
  • Bob Tisdale as Mr. Williams
  • Autry Ward as Texan #2
  • West Ward as Card Player
  • William Vance White as Bob
  • Michael R. Witte as Reporter #1
  • Alan Wong as Billa


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 change. In his 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 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 (1967). 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.


Gene Siskel listed Rolling Thunder on his ten best list for 1977. It was the tenth film on the list.[8]

This is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite films.[9] 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 [10] 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. ^ Canby, Vincent (October 15, 1977). "'Rolling Thunder' Film, Few Claps". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Studio boss who called it quits: Alan Ladd Alan Ladd By Louise Sweeney Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 08 Jan 1980: B10.
  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. ^ Siskel, Gene; Ebert, Roger. "Siskel and Ebert Top 10 Lists". Retrieved April 24, 2013. 
  9. ^ BFI | Sight & Sound | Top Ten Poll 2002 - How the directors and critics voted Archived April 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "MGM to Release Slew of Previously Unreleased DVDs". Retrieved January 21, 2011. 

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