Lost And Found 14: Rolling Thunder

Art & Culture

Hello. Is anybody there? Good. I’m sure we all enjoyed our time with the bitter and charming poet Gowan McGland in our last adventure. Although Reuben, Reuben was dark in its own humorous way, this time around we shall be returning to the gritty times of the American New Wave of New Hollywood in the seventies and discussing the psychological affects that the Vietnam War had on a family man. I present to you Rolling Thunder.


Film: Rolling Thunder

Cast: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes and Dabney Coleman


Director: John Flynn


Writers: Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould


Rolling Thunder first came to my attention some years ago when it was mentioned by Quentin Tarantino in an interview as one of his favourite films of all time. Immediately I ran to my computer (yes computer back then, no laptop or phones equipped with the Internet) and searched high and low for a copy. Unfortunately I could only find expensive Region 1 versions with average transfers, so all I could do was wait for a superior release sometime in the future. Thankfully that had happened due to HD and Blu-Ray releases and you can watch rare films made years ago in all their glory, but enough about my DVD hunting adventures let’s get down to business.


In 1977 the ‘back from Nam’ genre was very popular with audiences in America at the time. People that went to fight in the Vietnam War had returned home to a place that was no longer familiar to them anymore. Things had changed drastically, whether it was music, the attitudes of young people towards establishments and just generally being more outspoken, crime rates soaring through the roof etc. One could see the amount of angry films being made about people taking matters into their own hands when the law failed them or just getting sick of what society had become and reacting with violence and a deteriorating mental state. At the forefront of these films was screenwriter Paul Schrader mainly known for his critically-acclaimed work on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He decided to pen another similar project, this time directed by John Flynn who had just found some critical success with The Outfit. The film also managed to obtain a good cast with veteran actor William Devane and a rather young Tommy Lee Jones in one of his early film roles.



The year is 1973. Having served seven years in Hanoi as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) return home to San Antonio, they are given a car and thousands of silver dollars for the years that they served in the army. Rane is met by his wife, son and his friend local policeman Cliff. Major Rane feels out of place and emotionally distant from everybody by keeping to himself and remaining quiet even when his wife confesses to now being in a relationship with Cliff. One day a group of violent thugs break into his home in search of his homecoming gifts, they torture Rane by putting his hand into a garbage disposal unit, kill his wife and son and shoot him thinking that he is also dead. Rane recovers and decides to team up with Vohden, determined to track down the thugs that murdered his family and kill them no matter what it takes.


One can probably sense Rolling Thunder does not intend for you to feel comfortable or even really entertain but rather feel and think. It portrays how difficult it was for War veterans to fit back into a society that supported them in one way but not when it really mattered. After being away for nearly ten years it’s almost as if Major Rane has physically returned to his home and family in Texas but spiritually and emotionally is still back in Hanoi. When Rane returns home and greets his family, it becomes very obvious his own son does not recognise him. Initially one could argue this is due to the fact that he is starting to see Cliff more as a father figure but also it could be because Rane has changed so much to the point of looking like a different person. These subtle interpretations are manifested perfectly through Devane’s restrained performance as Rane. Devane walks around soulless with emotionless expressions as if nothing can break him after what he has seen in the War, almost like a ghost. Any pain he does feel he stores it up and has outbursts alone where he carries out the same pain that was inflicted onto him when he was in captivation.


Tommy Lee Jones also gives a similar solid performance as the disturbed Vohden who knows nothing but war. In one of the best scenes in the film we see Vohden at home with his family and Rane who is sitting with them dressed in his full uniform. The Vohden family are discussing which race they would prefer to buy products from and the audience start to see the sort of prejudice background he comes from. Vohden and Rane sit silently during the conversation either staring into oblivion or at the family members almost infatuated with the fact they can interact with each other. Both are so socially inept that it’s almost too overwhelming. However, this specific scene is not only revealing in its character study but also of the film Rolling Thunder could have potentially been.


While for the most part it is a memorable film that definitely deserves to be in the ‘found’ section of this column’s adventures mentioned along with the other great films of New Hollywood, one does feel that Schrader intended to write a different type of film that was more overt in its criticism of the Vietnam War. Schrader has gone on record to state that the studio destroyed his original vision of the film where Rane was a ‘white trash racist’ that had more in common with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character in Taxi Driver. He wrote it as an assessment of the US involvement in Vietnam and analysing racist attitudes in America. He wrote a film about fascism whereas the studio ended up making a fascist film. Thankfully Rolling Thunder has dated better than many predicted it would at the time of its release. Although one may wonder that had Schrader been given more creative control, we would have possibly got a more honest film. However, we still get a great one that stays with the viewer long after it has finished.