For most of the ’70s, there was something fundamentally conservative about American action movies—or, anyway, about non-blaxploitation American action movies. Films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish celebrated rebellious types like maverick cops and outside-the-law vigilantes. But all of them were, on a more basic level, fighting for law and order. Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey were heroes for the part of the population confused and angry over the way things were changing—the way kids were dressing and getting high and disrespecting authority. These heroes might’ve been flawed. In the case of a mass murderer like Paul Kersey, they were more than flawed. But they were doing everything they could to keep us from descending into chaos.
Around the time the U.S. pulled its forces out of Vietnam in 1975, something changed. Everybody figured out that chaos was already here. Americans weren’t necessarily heroes anymore. Moviegoers were getting used to the idea that people were lying to them, that the people coming home from Vietnam weren’t the square-jawed heroes that they might’ve imagined. Rolling Thunder, from 1977, is a great fucking movie, and that’s partly why it’s the subject of this month’s column. But it’s also here because it’s important in the history of action movies. It’s the first time an American studio action movie really tried to wrestle with the idea of Vietnam, with the idea that some of the people coming home were, on a deep level, damaged.
American studios had been making movies about Vietnam almost since the war started. The most famous early one is probably The Green Berets, the 1968 John Wayne vehicle about wartime heroism. And there were B-movies, too, like 1970’s The Losers, about an American biker gang recruited for a Cambodian mission. But some of our smarter directors were already figuring that things were fucked up over there. Plenty of people look at Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch as an extended Vietnam allegory. And Peter Bogdanovich’s first movie, the 1968 Roger Corman thriller Targets, is about a vet who goes crazy and starts sniping random American civilians.
But Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, from 1976, was probably the most fully realized Vietnam-vet movie. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character can’t get used to the idea of civilian life; he’s too broken. And eventually, he turns himself into an avenging-hero type. Taxi Driver isn’t an action movie. As loathsome as Harvey Keitel’s pimp character might be, he’s not the movie’s real villain. Instead, Bickle is both the hero and the villain, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes Taxi Driver a character study, not an action movie. But a year later, Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader would apply his fucked-up worldview to a straight-up revenge movie, and that movie was Rolling Thunder.
Rolling Thunder, which Schrader co-wrote with Heywood Gould, starts out looking like heartwarming Americana. After seven years in a Vietnam prison camp, an American pilot, Major Charles Rane, is coming home to San Antonio. (It’s the John McCain story, more or less. McCain had come home in ’73, and I have to imagine that his story was a key influence on the movie. Rolling Thunder takes its title from the Air Force’s bombing campaign in Vietnam, and that’s what got McCain shot down.) Crowds of fresh-faced little-leaguers come out to clap for Rane, and a cheesy ’70s folk-pop song plays over the opening credits.
Rane is cool and passive—eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses, expression never changing. Everyone seems ecstatic to have him back, but his home situation is a mess. His wife, thinking she’d never see him again, has moved onto another man, and they’re planning on getting married. His son doesn’t know him. Nobody understands him. He finds himself missing the daily torture. In an unnerving conversation with the man who’s already replaced him, Rane explains, “You learn to love the rope. That’s how you beat them.”
For nearly half its running time, Rolling Thunder is a fascinating domestic drama about this guy trying and failing to adjust to his new life. As Rane, the great character actor William Devane underplays everything, never letting anyone in, whether it be the viewer or his family. But then things suddenly and abruptly get very, very bad. A local car dealership has given Rane a suitcase full of silver dollars, one for every day he was in the prison camp. A few local miscreants see the news on TV, so they break into Rane’s house and demand the suitcase. He immediately goes into torture-flashback mode, freezing up and saying nothing even as the thieves jam his hand into his own garbage disposal. When Rane’s wife and son come home, the invaders kill the two of them, taking the money and leaving Rane for dead.
The criminals are a nasty and dumb bunch, and they don’t seem to have much of a plan, committing multiple murders for a few thousand dollars’ worth of cash. One of them, the awesomely named Automatic Slim, is another Vietnam vet, and he makes sure to tell Rane that he had to be “face-down in the muck” while Rane was flying planes above him. He doesn’t give a fuck about Rane’s time as a POW. He’s damaged, too, to the point where he’s lost his humanity.
Maybe the strangest thing about Rolling Thunder is the way those killings suddenly give Rane purpose and direction. He’s a soldier again. He has a job: to find the men who killed his family, and to kill them. There’s a great badass montage where Rane is readying for war. He sharpens the hook that’s replaced his hand, he saws off his shotgun, and he fills the trunk of his car with guns. The sunglasses he’s been wearing make sense as a character details—he’s been hiding his face from everyone this whole time—but they also look cool as hell.
Still, Rane isn’t a straight-up hero. He’s deeply flawed. He tells the cops nothing, deciding to hunt these guys down himself—a decision that gets one cop killed. He’s out of his mind and ready to die. Late in the movie, he finds Sergeant Johnny Voden (Tommy Lee Jones), who’d been a POW with him. The two of them have this exchange: “I found them.” “Who?” “The men who killed my son.” “I’ll just get my gear.” The two of them ride off into battle in full uniform. Johnny leaves his family at the dinner table, telling them nothing but pointedly telling his father goodbye.
Rane and Johnny both seem to think of themselves the same way Ogami Itto thinks of himself in the Lone Wolf And Cub movies. They’re already dead, but they’re on a mission of vengeance, and they can’t stop until they’ve finished it. At one point, Rane hears an old country song on the radio and muses, “I remember that song from when I was alive.” And it’s not just them. After a waitress, through sheer force of will, becomes Rane’s new girlfriend, she finds herself getting dragged into his revenge plot, and she asks, “Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?” Rane answers, “That’s the only kind that’s left.”
Rolling Thunder is a short, compact, mean little movie. The credits roll seconds after the final shootout ends. The action scenes are brutal and abrupt. Nobody dies gloriously. Some of the villains are Mexican, and others wear cowboy hats, so the movie looks a bit like a Western. But there are no Western-movie heroics. Director John Flynn was only a couple of movies into his career, but he’d prove to be a gifted action-movie journeyman. Years later, he’d make Out For Justice, the best Steven Seagal movie. Rolling Thunder and Out For Justice might not have a whole lot in common, but they do share a focused intensity.
Rolling Thunder is a bloody, nasty, complicated action movie for a bloody, nasty, complicated moment in American history. It wasn’t a hit. It didn’t make a star out of Devane, who’d go onto a long character-actor career. (Most recently, he was Rob Lowe and Fred Savage’s dad on the very good and just-canceled Fox sitcom The Grinder.) Flynn and Devane blame the movie’s commercial failure on skittish studio response to some early test screenings. To hear Devane tell it, the largely Mexican crowd at a San Jose screening hated the movie so much that they almost rioted. It only just came out on DVD a few years ago.
But Rolling Thunder is an important movie for a couple of reasons. It has its admirers, of course. Quentin Tarantino lists it among his favorite movies, and he named his ’90s-era video-reissue label after it. But Rolling Thunder also marks the first real action-movie attempt to come to grips with the Vietnam War, and with America’s changing role in the world. There would be more. In the early ’80s, action movies like Uncommon Valor and First Blood did what they could to wrestle with the questions that the war raised. Rolling Thunder got there first.
Other noteworthy 1977 action movies: It’s really more of a screwball comedy than an action movie, but the runner-up here has to be Smokey And The Bandit. The movie was a titanic hit; that year, only Star Wars made more money. (I don’t think of Star Wars as an action movie, so that’s why we’re not talking about it here.) It had some great stunts and chases, and it turned Burt Reynolds into the biggest movie star in the world. And even though truck-driver movies were already a thing, it led to a small explosion of them; that’s why a guy like Chuck Norris ended up playing a trucker in his first starring role, or why Sam Peckinpah’s second-to last movie ended up being Convoy.
That same year also gave us Black Sunday, about terrorists trying to use the Goodyear Blimp to bomb the Super Bowl, and The Deep, about divers trying to protect sunken treasure from a drug kingpin. Meanwhile, in the absurd but entertaining The Gauntlet, Clint Eastwood played an honest but alcoholic cop attempting to protect a mob-trial witness from a whole army of corrupt cops, naturally falling in love with her somewhere along the line. Eastwood’s favorite director Don Siegel worked with Charles Bronson on Telefon, a sort of Manchurian Candidate knockoff about brainwashed spies. The Spy Who Loved Me, despite being extremely goofy, might still be the least goofy Roger Moore Bond movie. The aforementioned Chuck Norris got his first starring role in the widely forgotten Breaker! Breaker!
And while William Friedkin’s incredible Sorcerer isn’t a proper action movie—the only real villain is nature—I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the tensest action scenes I’ve ever seen: The one where the two trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin have to cross a rickety, falling-apart jungle rope bridge in the middle of a storm.
Next time: Walter Hill brings flat, affectless European sophistication to American B-movies with The Driver.