Possibly one of the driest revenge thrillers of the 70’s Rolling Thunder has for years been collecting a steady following of exploitation fans, for its somber mood and atmosphere. Unlike the righteous payback of say, Coffy or Death Wish, the revenge served up in Rolling Thunder is very cold indeed. The story concerns a recently discharged Viet vet, Charles Rane (played by William Devane) who arrives back home in Texas after enduring seven years of torture and captivity in a Hanoi prisoner of war camp. Rane returns home to a broken marriage and a son he barely knows. Worse is to come as a gang of Mexican toughs arrive at his home looking for cash. When Rane refuses to hand over the loot, the gang execute his wife and son, and plunge Rane’s arm into a garbage grinder, leaving him for dead. Rane emerges from his ordeal equipped with a metal hook for a hand, and hell bent on revenge, with the help of Vohden, his Vietnam buddy who’s eager for a bit of trigger pullin’...
Rolling Thunder began as a Paul Schrader penned script, which by the time it got to AIP, had undergone some changes, namely the character of Charles Rane who was originally a hard-line Texas racist. Although Schrader’s original idea for the character would not survive the re-write, Rane would appear in another guise – as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Still, the film features some of Schrader’s preoccupations – guilt, self torment, and most explicitly, his love for The Wild Bunch, which informs the last act of the film as Rane and Vohden shoot it out in a Mexican whorehouse.
Originally Rolling Thunder was to be Schrader’s first shot at directing, but instead the directorial duties were handled by John Flynn who specialized in hard edge tough guy films like Best Seller, Lock Up, Out for Justice, and The Outfit, his best film after Rolling Thunder, an excellent Point Blank style thriller from 1973 starring Robert Duvall. Flynn’s direction is appropriately muscular but balanced by a great performance by William Devane who walks through the film like a ghost that left its body back in the POW camp. He’s a haunting presence in the film, his life meaningless and all but destroyed – the scene where he listens impassively to his wife’s dissolution of their marriage is one of the film’s great moments. Worth mentioning also, Rane’s restless Vietnam buddy Vohden, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a minor but memorable early role. In fact he delivers the best line in the film when he flatly declares to a prostitute, “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people”
Rolling Thunder remains an impressive film today, in spite of a thousand meaner and meatier revenge films that came in its wake. Influential too; First Blood director, Ted Kotcheff probably lifted the short black & white torture flashbacks from Flynn’s film. Tarantino is a major fan and has done much to promote Rolling Thunder over the years, showing a print at film festivals, and naming his distribution company after the film. Unfortunately, the film is still unavailable on DVD but can be found through the usual grey sources, and is well worth tracking down.