Have you ever wanted to get back at somebody? Have you ever wanted to get revenge so bad that you would KIIILL? Well get a fucking grip mate. The reality is that revenge and the obsession to get it is often too much of a price to pay for what could just easily be nothing more than your own insecurities eating away at you. And what do you want revenge for anyway? Did they break up with you, or fire you from that shitty job that you didn’t like anyway? Or was it for that person who cut in front of you at the queue for the till at the supermarket? Well it ain’t worth it Mate. Go to the pub and have a pint to chill out.
But sometimes something happens in a person’s life that requires them to become the angel of death, the harbinger of reckoning. In other words to be a bad motherfucker raining judgement on those who have wronged them. And in tonight’s episode of The Sunday Cult Film,Corner, we see one damaged man’s quest to wreak all out vengeance on those who have caused him the ultimate pain, with outright cold clarity and determination. Ladies and gentlemen I give you ROLLING THUNDER.
Directed in 1977 by John Flynn, it stars William Devane as Major Charles Rane, a man who returns back home to Texas after spending seven years captive as a POW in a Vietnamese prison camp. Despite the parades, life has moved on without him. His son barely recognises who he is, and his wife, thinking he was dead, is now with another man and wants a divorce. Rane himself is a traumatised and damaged man, suffering years of torture and brutality. Despite this, he resolves to rebuild his life, that is, until a violent confrontation with several criminals who are after a gift of $2500 in silver dollars he has received from the town leaves his family dead and his hand severed. Once he leaves hospital, he enlists of his war buddy from Vietnam Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), and a local waitress (Linda Haynes) to go after the criminals and exact his bloody revenge.
For many, ROLLING THUNDER is one of those classic cult ’70s films that not too many people know about. Indeed, it has been given the honour of achieving cult status by receiving a seal of approval from über film director geek Quentin Tarantino himself. As a tale, Rolling Thunder is very much like a western in its scope. Wronged man seeks revenge no matter what has long been a staple of many a western, and film-with western-structure, from The Outlaw Josey Wales, to Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Horseman, and Dead Man’s Shoes. And like many of those films, Rolling Thunder displays an economy of effort throughout. there’s no glorified, flashy moments of violence, or wordy expositions. Like all good genre films of its type, it’s this lack of guidance, moral ambiguity, and leaness in the script and narrative makes the viewer look into the character motivations and what ti is that actually drives them. Nothing is handed to you on a plate here.
What really makes the films tick is the central figure of Rane, played brilliantly by Devane. Rane is a man whose experiences have scarred him to the point where these days he would be a classic example of someone suffering PTSD. He is unable to sleep and suffers nightmares of the torture he underwent in Vietnam. He is almost completely shut off emotionally, unable to connect with his soon-to-be-ex wife and distant son. Many times he barely looks at people when he talks to them, often just staring into the middle distance. And when you do get to look him in the eyes they burn you through with a mix of anger and pain. Half the time you don’t know if he is going to kill you, or if he going to break down in tears. The only person who truly understands what he has gone through is Vohden, who is also unable to relate to his family and their trivial concerns. Take the scene near the end when Rane turns up to Vohden’s house in full army uniform – Vohden immediately knows what is going to happen and is more than willing to help an old comrade in arms.
The script, by Paul Schrader, a slightly less known entry of his canon of films the ’70s/80 that include the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Mishima and American Gigilo. But some of the traits from those films are carried through into Rolling Thunder. you have the singular male protagonist who may be suffering from some form of mental issues, often going down a path of action that may cause harm to that person, redemption through violence, violence against the body, either through physical or emotional means, and an often brutal and bloody climax.
Of course the spectre of the Vietnam War hangs heavy over the film and many people see ROLLING THUNDER as a denouement of the US policy in Vietnam, as well as other foreign incursions in the ’60s and ’70s. In fact Schrader wanted to make ROLLING THUNDER into an even darker film. From the IMDB entry…
In the book “Schrader On Schrader” Paul Schrader who co-wrote the movie complains how the studio completely twisted his original version of the story. He wrote it as a critique of US involvement in Vietnam War and fascistic and racist attitudes in America. Rane was originally written as white trash racist with many similarities to Schrader’s more famous character Travis Bickle (the main character of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). In this version, Rane becomes a war hero without ever having fired a gun, and comes home to confront the Texas Mexican community. Rane’s racist upbringing and hatred that grew in him in Vietnam slowly come out. This version ends with Rane’s indiscriminate slaughter of Mexicans which was meant as a metaphor for Vietnam. Schrader concludes with a claim that he basically wrote a film about fascism and the studio made a fascist film.
ROLLING THUNDER is definitely a film that leaves it’s mark on you. It´s tale of revenge is mean, ever so slightly nihilistic and is a complex tales of what it takes to drive a man to a one trip to right the wrongs against him. Get yourself watching this soon, as it’s likely that this video won’t stay up here for too long…