Men like “manly movies”. That’s such an obvious statement it doesn’t need to be qualified. And while film geeks love “manly movies” more than nearly any other kind of movie, we adore the obscure. If it’s obscure to the point where even the creators have forgotten about it, we love it even more. If it’s obscure, hard to find and manly, all the friggin’ better!
For the most part, Paul Schrader writes “manly movies”. In fact, you don’t get much manlier than, say, Taxi Driver or The Yakuza, in terms of taciturn and laconic men slowly taking charge. Even Light Sleeper, which features a stronger central female character than a male, still ends in a very “manly” way, i.e., vicious, bloody gunfight. Just like the latter two above and this one, Rolling Thunder, which Quentin Tarantino famously referred to as one of his favorite movies. Loved it so much, in fact, he named a distribution company after it—though, strangely, did not re-release the titular movie.
After seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp, Major Rane and Sgt. Vohden return home to parades, fanfare, celebration and a homecoming consisting of a red Cadillac and $2555 worth of silver dollars (one for every year he was in the camp, plus one for luck). But surviving torture meant disconnecting from their emotions, so they both have a tough time adjusting to civilian life. Rane’s wife, thinking he was dead, began a relationship with Cliff, a local policeman. Rane’s son, Mark, was an infant when he left so he has no relationship with his father. But Cliff is an amiable sort and a good man, so Rane accepts his wife’s new life but determines to get to know his son. All of that is cut short, however, when a gang of thugs, led by “The Texan” and “Automatic Slim” break into Rane’s house and demand he turn over the silver dollars. Giving only his name, rank and serial number, Rane’s stoicism pisses off the burglars, so they stick his hand into the garbage disposal. Afterwards, the thugs shoot Rane, his wife and son. Rane survives, hook-handed, and returns to his now-empty home. He saws off the barrel of a shotgun, sharpens his prosthetic hook and vows revenge. Aided by Linda, a local “Texas Belle” who wore his bracelet for support during his imprisonment, Rane sets off to hunt down the men who killed his family.
Lots of “manliness” happens. Bar fights, torture flashbacks, beatings, shootings, stabbings—violent, masculine things in dark, grimy places. Even when Linda disapproves of Rane’s mission of vengeance, she still supports him because of all he endured and more. Even when they make love, Rane is stone-faced and unreadable. Because that’s what a real man is when you come down to it: duty-bound and living under a hard code of honor. You beat your enemies by loving the torture they inflict, that way they never know you’re beating them. Or something like that.
An indictment of all humanity, written by Schrader and Heywood Gould and directed by John Flynn, Rolling Thunder seems to say that no matter what “good fight” we were fighting in Vietnam, there were still those behind who weren’t worth fighting for. Automatic Slim served a tour as well, but as infantry. He tells the air force pilot, “We were face-down in the mud while you boys flew over us.” So, therefore, in his mind, his violence is justified. All sorts of philosophy can be applied to the storyline but, honestly, Rolling Thunder isn’t a good enough movie to merit it.
Glendon Swarthout, in his sensitive novel, Bless the Beasts and the Children, wrote “For this is the marrowbone of every American adventure story: some men with guns, going somewhere, to do something dangerous.” And Rolling Thunder—like so many other “manly movies”—wants you to think that it starts with that edict and goes beyond it, but it doesn’t. By the climax, that’s all we’re left with. In fact, Tommy Lee Jones, as Vohden, sums it up when a prostitute he’s with finds him assembling a shotgun prior to the last standoff. She asks him what he’s going to do with it. He replies: “Kill a whole bunch of people.”
The only time Rolling Thunder attempts to go beyond the simple art of manliness comes with a nearly abandoned subplot involving Cliff, Rane’s dead wife’s lover. Having raised Mark while Rane was gone, and having come to love Janet even though he lived under Rane’s shadow, Cliff had the most right to mourn their murder. But he swallows his grief in deference to all that Rane suffered. When he discovers the remains of Rane’s shotgun barrel and realizes what the automatonic Major has set out to do, Cliff lights out to either stop him or, failing that (as he suspects), aid him. Most of all, Cliff wants to help the man he feels, in some way, indebted to. Without having gone through the torture that Rane suffered, Cliff still feels in the man’s shadow, but as a character, Cliff is the better man. He doesn’t particularly like the Major, but he respects and admires him. In return, Rane bears Cliff no ill will and in their brief confrontations it’s shown that the respect is mutual. But Cliff’s journey comes to an abrupt and meaningless end during the film’s second act and is never addressed again. By the time the bullets start flying again and Rane meets Automatic Slim for the last time, you come to realize that while these sequences are viscerally satisfying, Cliff’s journey was the more interesting of the two.
As the underdeveloped Cliff, TV actor Lawrason Driscoll delivers the best performance in the film. The other men growl, snarl and whisper their lines; the women merely sigh or insist. Devane barely speaks a word during the last forty-five minutes of the movie. He’s too busy enduring. Even when his hand is removed in the disposal, he merely grits his teeth and thinks, defiantly, about Hanoi. The only actors seeming to have any fun are Luke Askew as Automatic Slim (easily the best name in the film) and Jones as Vohden, who is so disconnected from reality that he eagerly leaps into battle without being asked. He is the last act’s sole source of humor, too, crazily looking forward to the fire fight. His picking up of a prostitute is meant as a distraction—the villains don’t know him and his presence will allow Rane access to the hideout—and when she gives him her price, he replies, “I’m not looking to own you, just rent you for a while.” It’s the movie’s only light-hearted line.
Of course, Rolling Thunder was never intended to be light-hearted, so if Dabney Coleman’s presence early on gave you a sense of hope, you’ll be disappointed a few minutes in. Instead, the viewer is left in the dirt and shadows with only grim despair as company. You are never given an opportunity to identify with Rane because his humanity has been stripped away, so like he does with the world, you’re left to merely endure him. Sure, he looks cool with that hook, but what’s the point of it all? When the credits roll, why were we brought on this journey? They were men, with guns, who went somewhere, to do something dangerous. That they won or lost bore no weight on mission.
After a brief theatrical release, Rolling Thunder virtually vanished from sight. Even in light of Jones’ immense popularity over the years, it was granted a sparse VHS release and can only be found on DVD as a Spanish import.
Like a good many of us, I suspect that Tarantino elevates this movie to the top of his favorites, possibly, because it’s so obscure. If we film geeks were to be honest, we’d readily admit that our personal gems are ones that can’t be seen by the masses. It’s what makes us superior, culturally-speaking, to the rest of the beer-drinking, sports-fans in our society. We understand what you cannot because you’ll never get the opportunity—because you didn’t take the time to hunt it down. That’s our cred, see? Because we root for the underdog.
Which is also what makes “manly movies” so appealing. The worm turns. The lone man with the gun does something dangerous in the face of the majority. Even if he, like the situation, is ultimately empty. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you, “guy who liked Avatar?”