When a film is unavailable to the public due to censorship or distribution issues, film geeks will always get sweaty with excitement at the thought of getting their filthy hands on an illicit copy. Although John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) was freely available on VHS, its rarity – and more significantly, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth’s endorsement – caused the usual ‘graphic violence’ fur to fly.
Based on an original story and screenplay by Taxi Driver (1976) scribe Paul Schrader, Rolling Thunder follows the tale of Major Charles Rane (William Devane), who returns home to a heroe’s welcome after spending seven years in a Hanoi POW camp. Emotionally damaged by the experience, Rane finds it difficult to reconnect with his old his life. Whilst resigned to losing his wife who, thinking he was dead, has been having a relationship with another man, Rane is determined to bond with his young son, who was just a baby when he left for Vietnam.
The above may well sound like the premise for a TV movie melodrama, which it would be if events didn’t take a turn for the worst and lead to gun fights and blood shed. However, whilst Rolling Thunder has gained a reputation based on its bullet-riddled second half, the first 30 minutes are by far the most interesting part of the film.
Schrader’s original script was heavily edited and he was reportedly unhappy with the finished product after The Boys from Brazil (1978) scribe Heywood Gould was brought in to rewrite the “relentless bloodbath” by the studio. How much of the film is Schrader and how much is Gould is up for debate, but it is certainly worth noting that Schrader’s original screenplay contains a scene in which Rane walks into a cinema and comes to face to face with Taxi Driver protagonist Travis Bickle – a wonderfully mad idea that sadly never came to fruition.
Although its set up is superior to the final pay off, Rolling Thunder does have all the ingrediants that a cult classic requires. William Devane’s Major Rane is a solid anti-hero, with few men in the history of cinema having looked as cool in a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Linda Haynes does a fine job as sassy groupie Linda, as does Tommy Lee Jones, who makes the most of his limited screen time to utter a couple of memorable lines in the guise of Johnny Vohden. Throw in an iconic 70s poster and an action-packed final showdown and its easy to see why the likes of Tarantino have sang Rolling Thunder’s praises. If you can forgive the cardboard villains and suspicious editing, there is plenty here to hold your interest.