Before the gloomy portent of The Deer Hunter (1978) and the majesty of Heaven’s Gate (1980), Michael Cimino’s debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), initially appears to be an uncharacteristically modest affair. It’s a melancholic work of revisionist Americana concealed beneath a handsome retrograde exterior. Though his name would later become a synonym for auteurist excess, Cimino shows some remarkable tact in the way he handles the film’s myriad dualities. He grounds the picture by placing the more conventional elements at the forefront; the traditional heist thriller structure and buddy comedy dynamics imbue the film with a familiar sense of thematic certainty.
Cimino’s genius is in making Thunderbolt and Lightfoot look like any other populist seventies hit while subtly shifting the foundations, essentially smuggling New Hollywood radicalism into a seemingly innocuous mainstream star vehicle. After a barnstorming opening that throws Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt and Jeff Bridges’ Lightfoot together against their respective wills, the film follows the pair on the lam from Idaho until they arrive at a small town from Thunderbolt’s past, presenting the opportunity for the heist of a lifetime. One of the film’s key dualities is the pairing of Eastwood and Bridges. Despite a twenty-year age gap, they’re two sides of the same coin; rugged cinematic outlaws, as American as they come. Extratextual detail from their real lives heightens the mythic qualities of the pairing.
Eastwood, the Republican elder and Bridges, the liberal warrior are living embodiments of the shifting narratives of American patriotism. They are the yin and yang of the mystical movie outlaws, and Cimino uses this to great effect. Against the dusty Midwestern landscape, they bicker and squabble, huff and puff. What brings them together is a longing; the dream of success, of one big steal. They are men adrift in a sea of conformity; a single significant heist is all it will take for them to collate the means to forge their own freedom. Beneath the gags and the cross-dressing, the Western is a key cinematic reference point for Cimino, and one that conversely excavates the film’s more forward-thinking elements.
Like Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky (1952), they are God’s lonely men, drawn together by a desire to earn their part of the dream of the prosperity unfolding around them. There is a thread of melancholy that runs throughout the picture and it’s amplified to emotional effect in the stunning coda. Eastwood and Bridges handle the tricky character transitions well, playing the broad material for the back rows while hinting at the inner darkness. Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot beckoned in the strange birth of a true auteur, and it’s one well worth digging into.