ROLLING THUNDER is a Revenge-O-Matic Masterpiece

I came across John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder like most young cinephiles in the 90s, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, who not only heralded it as his favorite film, but even named his personal vanity distro label – Rolling Thunder Pictures. That sent me on the hunt for a film that was not as readily available as it is today, thanks to Shout Factory who just released a 4K UHD disc that hit online “shelves” recently. The film, written by a young Paul Schrader in 1973 was originally intended to be helmed by George Romero at AIP, after that fell through, Schrader intended to direct, only to lose the film to up and coming director John Flynn, with the film now setup at 20 Century Fox. 

This would also incite a script rewrite by Heywood Gould, who would soften some of the rough edges. Not only was the original film much more violent, but Taxi Driver’s own Travis Bickle even makes an appearance in a porno drive-in. As Schrader put it in an interview, Rolling Thunder in his eyes was about “a Texas trash racist who had become a war hero without ever having fired a gun”, which is what was toned down a few notches by Gould.The rewrite also added not only a fractured humanity to the protagonist, but a melancholy to the piece that isn’t simply a revenge-o-matic, that follows a pair of good ol’ boys who take matters in their own hands, and hook.  

For those that haven’t caught Rolling Thunder, the film follows Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) who are returning home after enduring seven years as POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp. It’s very apparent from the get go, both men are broken after the years of torture, and are unsure about a what a return to day to day life would entail. Charles is almost immediately off to a rough start as he soon discovers his wife has very understandably moved on after she thought her husband was dead, and is about to marry local policeman Cliff Nichols, who has become a father figure to his son. The fact that this relationship with his child is the one that matters most to him and the one he needs to repair when all is said and done, says volumes about Rane.  

The trouble starts for Major Rane when at his homecoming ceremony, along with a brand new red convertible, Charles is gifted a box of silver dollars, one for every day he’s in captivity. Soon after a gang of what appear to be hippies show up at his home to rob him. Even after mangling his arm down a garbage disposal, Charles, who’s been hardened by his time as a POW and seems to even find some kind of sadistic pleasure in it, doesn’t give in. But his wife and son come home and quickly give in to their demands and are killed for their cooperation, with the Major left for dead.  

Now, where Rolling Thunder cooks is, instead of cooperating with the police, Charles says he remembers nothing and simply gets proficient with his hook and various killing implements thanks to the power of montage. Charlie then calls up Johnny, who is obviously struggling with day to day life and the two decide to go out for revenge at a Mexican brothel and relive their time in ‘Nam. Personally, while it’s hard to forget the vengeance heavy back end of the film, it’s the beginning that really pulled me in this time around. There’s a vulnerability to how both of these men play these characters that could have been simply played much more broad and simply for shock value. Instead there is an introspection at the heart of both Johnny and Charlie who are united by their shared trauma that has bonded the two in a way no normal person would ever understand.  

While the previous Shout Blu transfer came from a European release, thankfully they’ve gone back to the original camera negative to strike a brand new scan this time around. The image here is nothing short of breathtaking having seen the film previously on a much more weathered 35mm print, this was a completely new experience. There was a jaw dropping clarity and color in the image, coupled with the grain you’d expect. The HDR also perfectly accentuates the 70s veneer delivering a slightly more broader color spectrum. The film’s sole audio selection is a mono 2.0 DTS-HD track and that’s completely fine. Shout also delivers a new host of extras this time around, so for those that are upgrading, you’re getting more than simply an image upgrade.  

Rolling Thunder has Paul Schrader once again examining not only the toll of war on a man, but what happens after he is put out into the world. Vietnam was also an interesting case study, since we as a country were very divided on whether or not this “conflict” was worth the lives it cost and those forced to go didn’t come back to the hero’s welcome they should have. I think that’s what this film represents best is what that emasculation does to a man after risking his life for his country, and how far that can push him. There’s also a vulnerability to the male characters you rarely see in these kinds of films and it’s something that was extremely progressive of John Flynn to show his characters in this light. 

Its cathartic, it’s gut wrenching and it’s a film that I am thankful can be more readily seen in the presentation on this 4K UHD. As a revengeomatic few films work better than Rolling Thunder, but it also is a deeply personal story of loss. Not just losing your wife and son in death, they are all but dead to Rane, when they thought he was dead. But losing that relationship with your son that time, those connections to humanity and reality. These are the things that really send Rane on the killing spree, their deaths only give him an excuse and someone to kill. Its easy to see why someone like Tarantino would take the film and elevate it to what it is today. There’s a profound honesty at the heart of the exploitation classic that’s hard to deny and its why it continues to live on. 

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