Monday, November 2, 2009

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Rolling Thunder (1977) review


This is a section devoted to rare, and as yet to be released on legitimate DVD movies. Some films may have been released in some part of the world, or on some public domain label, or some may have simply never been released at all on the digital format. This section is designed to keep these films alive and to provide remembrance to those who may have seen them in some form or other, whether it be on the silver screen, on videotape, or the small screen at home.


William Devane (Major Charles Rane), Tommy Lee Jones (Johnny Vohden), Linda Haynes (Linda Forchet), James Best (Texan), Luke Askew (Automatic Slim), Lawrason Driscoll (Cliff),
Dabney Coleman (Maxwell)

Directed by John Flynn

"Where I was...we didn't get to see the American flag very often"

Major Charles Rane returns from Vietnam with his friend, Johnny. Coming home a war hero, Charles Rane is given a monetary gift ("One silver dollar for every day you were in Hanoi's hell hole") from the entire town. Unknown to him, a group of vicious thugs sets their sights on the 2,555 silver dollars given to the veteran military man. Invading his home and ultimately killing his wife and son, the murderers then grind Rane's hand up in his garbage disposal, shoot him and leave him for dead. Surviving, the Vietnam scarred Major receives a hook hand and with his disturbed war buddy, Johnny, the two men take off after the killers in a chase that leads them to a whorehouse across the Mexican border and a violent showdown.

Director John Flynn fashions what is assuredly one of the greatest revenge movies of all time. Brilliantly shot, the film not only contains an oppressively grim atmosphere, but it possesses some vibrant characterizations that escalates the frequent exploitation elements into a far more cerebral territory they would otherwise not have. A masterpiece of the Vietnam Vet/Vengeance subgenre, it's a serious crime that this film is unavailable on American shores in a special edition DVD presentation. It has played on cable for the last few years in a widescreen version.

"I remember that song from when I was alive."

Aside from its violent showcase of aggression, the film is a fascinating look into the lives of soldiers coming home after bearing witness to the atrocities of Vietnam. Especially compelling is Rane's relationship (or lack thereof) with his son, who doesn't remember his father at all as he was too young to do so. There's also some exposition regarding Rane's wife, who is discovered to have had an affair with a local deputy named Cliff who took Rane's place as 'father of the house'.

"Listen Cliff...I hope ya don't mind me sayin' this to ya...but I'd really appreciate it if you didn't call my kid a runt."

"You know, you're lucky. You're lucky they didn't ruin you for life."

Once Charles Rane spends the first evening at home, his wife is noticeably nervous and shaken. Charles knows something has been going on in his absence and his wife openly admits to the affair. She even goes so far as to say that Cliff has asked her to marry him and her acceptance stemming from the belief that Charles was killed in action. The Major seems just as cold and detached here as he does throughout the remainder of the film. There's quite a lot of tension involved in these scenes and this tension reaches its apex once Cliff confronts Charles in his shed.

"You wanna know what they did? Sure you do."

"Higher, man, higher, till ya hear the bones start to crack. HIGHER! COME ON, HIGHER!!"

It is here that the two share a drink and Charles reveals some of what he went through in the Hanoi hellhole which makes Cliff even more uncomfortable. The notion that Charles is slightly unhinged from his ordeal rears its head when he asks Cliff to assist in a recreation of a twice daily torture session.

"These are mean 'ol boys. They can make ya tell us where the money is."

It's not long after that Rane returns home and finds his house has been invaded by a group of cruel ruffians led by James Best (Roscoe from DUKES OF HAZZARD). Demanding in a very calm and breezy manner that he hand over the 2,555 silver dollars, the crazed Texan promises that some serious harm will come to him should he not comply. Suffering a brutal beating, Rane refuses to reveal the location of the coins. The Major shows little to no sign of pain, the thrashing parallels similar beatings the Major suffered in Vietnam. The gang then proceed to grind his hand up in the garbage disposal.

This sequence is one of the most violent in the whole movie and it escalates once Rane's wife and son return home. Not wishing to see these intruders torture his father any longer, the little boy shows the men where the coins are. Once they have what they want, the leader shoots the wife and small boy and Slim fires twice into Major Rane leaving him for dead. Managing to survive, Charles seems unmoved towards everything that has transpired even claiming to not remember anything of that fateful day.

"It's like my eyes are open and I'm lookin' at ya, but I'm dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me."

After revisiting the scene of the horrible massacre of his family, Rane modifies his hook hand and gets his guns ready and heads down to Nuevo Laredo, the place where the villains were to meet. With his friend, Linda, tagging along, she aids him (unwittingly at first) in his revenge. What's most interesting about the character of Linda is that she is the only person that seems to enable Rane to display any semblance of (fleeting) human emotion such as in one scene where you see the Major actually smile as if he is finally happy and content.

"They're in a whorehouse over in Juarez right now. There's the four that came into my home...and there's eight or ten others."

Leaving Linda asleep inside a motel, Charles soon discovers where the whole mad group of killers are holed up. He gets his friend, Johnny and both pack up their weapons and gleefully head out for a wild night of serious bloodshed in a Mexican whorehouse which hosts the location for one of the bloodiest and brutal shootouts you'll ever see.

William Devane (THE DARK) is absolutely marvelous and chilling in his performance as disturbed Major Charles Rane. He plays the role as you would expect someone who had been in a horrendous situation trying to interact with normal society. He, like his war buddy, Johnny, both seem emotionally detached, almost zombie-like in their contact with the "civilized" world. When the big shootout comes, both seem almost overjoyed at the fact they are about to take part in a gruesome act of violence.

Devane was a wonderful actor who appeared in numerous television programs and an occasional movie such as the science fiction horror feature, THE DARK (1979) and the failed big budget comedy, HONKEY TONK FREEWAY (1981). While shooting ROLLING THUNDER, Devane frequently butted heads with John Flynn over certain aspects of the production.

Tommy Lee Jones is the most successful alum from ROLLING THUNDER (1977). He of course went on to a prosperous career in Hollywood appearing in movies like BLACK MOON RISING (1986), THE FUGITIVE (1993) and MEN IN BLACK (1997). Jones is likewise unsettling in his role as Johnny Vohden. Both he and Devane's character have a somewhat bizarre, yet kindred relationship in that they've both experienced the same horrors of war and both feel they no longer fit in with modern society.

Linda Haynes was a seductively playful and appealing actress who featured in a handful of genre movies such as the US-Japan co-production, LATITUDE ZERO (1969) and the blaxploitation classic, COFFY (1973). Her last acting role was in GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES (1980). Having had enough of Hollywood, she left her acting career behind her and settled down to start a family.

James Best plays the evil leader of the thugs that further ruins the life of Major Rane. Best is probably 'best' remembered for his role as the buffoonish sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on the long running tv series, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. Best also featured in a number of television appearances such as a recurring role on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and also the original TWILIGHT ZONE. Here, he's incredibly sinister. He's only in a couple of scenes, but he makes the one inside of Rane's house one of the most memorable of the film.

Paul Partain (left) played Franklin, Sally Hardesty's crippled brother in the classic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Of interest to fans of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Paul A. Partain, who played the wheelchair bound Franklin, has a small role here as the brother-in-law in the Vohden household.

The calm before the storm during the explosive and bloody conclusion of ROLLING THUNDER

Like most 70's movies, the picture is deliberately paced with many scenes building the suspense before an explosion of violence. Action movies of today seldom let things build instead relying on quick cuts and fast editing to shave away any tension those scenes may have possessed. There's also a strong element of character development in ROLLING THUNDER that's often missing from many modern action films.

Although Flynn's production has a strong amount of brutality and sadism, there's two sequences that are stand outs; the vicious beating and massacre of Rane's family and the concludingly loud and abrasive shootout in the Mexican brothel. The two emotionally detached and impassive war vets go from room to room and systematically kill anyone affiliated with the transgression against Rane and his family. Also, the footage of Rane having his hand destroyed in the garbage disposal was originally shown in the film, but was later removed for being too gruesome.

Fight scene inside a pool hall as Major Rane searches for his family's killers

ROLLING THUNDER (1977) is one of the quintessential examples of action cinema from the glorious 1970's. The films title also was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's short lived video/DVD label, Rolling Thunder Pictures. Possessing a raw power melding both deep characterizations and strong scenes of violence, this film was at one time part of Twentieth Century Fox's release schedule. But because of the grim subject matter, the film was abandoned and picked up by AIP, the exploitation company who were on a sojourn as a big studio contender before the their untimely demise a couple of years later. ROLLING THUNDER is one of the most deserving titles to garner a DVD release, and it's a cruel shame this film isn't more widely known. If you like your action gritty and with a strong storyline, than this film gets my highest recommendation.
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