While its screenplay was written by Paul Schrader — who had also written Taxi Driver and would later go on to write the adaption of The Last Temptation of Christ — this 1977 film by novice director John Flynn is vile fascist propaganda without a shred of redeeming value or artistic merit. That Quentin Tarantino considers Rolling Thunder one of the Twelve Greatest Films of all Time, and even named a short lived project Rolling Thunder Pictures makes me suspect that the film critic Ray Carney was right after all. Tarantino is a lightweight.
So why should you watch it ?
Rolling Thunder may be a movie without artistic value, but that doesn’t mean it was made by people without artistic talent. On the contrary, while Rolling Thunder is your father’s American Sniper, it’s also a much better-made film. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, fascists really knew how to make an entertaining piece of right-wing propaganda, and Rolling Thunder ranks right up there with Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. What’s more, even in 2015, as Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President demonstrates, openly racist, openly misogynistic Baby Boomers still have a hold on the American imagination. Rolling Thunder may be 38-years-old, but its obsessions haven’t aged at all.
Rolling Thunder opens with a familiar image. It’s 1973. Major Charles Rane, William Devane, and Sergeant Johnny Vohden, Tommy Lee Jones, two recently liberated POWs, have just returned from Vietnam. The POW/MIA cult ginned up by the Nixon administration to distract from the American defeat is at its height. It’s also San Antonio Texas, not Berkeley, so there’s spitting on vets at the airport here. The United States may have lost its genocidal, criminal war against the Vietnamese people, but Rane and Vohden are treated like conquering heroes, especially Rane, a San Antonio native, who’s given the keys to a new Cadillac, and 2555 silver dollars, one for every day he was held prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton.
When Linda Forchet “The Texas Belle” — She’s played Linda Haynes, an excellent actress who deserves to be in a better movie. — gives Rane back a bracelet engraved with his name that she’s been wearing for the past 7 years, we realize that he’s basically a rock star. Forchet will later refer to herself as his “groupie.” That Rane is a happily married man with a young son is a problem Schrader takes care of with a remarkable narrative efficiency. First we find out that he’s not as happily married as he thinks he is. His wife has been sleeping with a local policeman named Cliff. The next day, Rane finds himself without a wife, a son or a left arm. It’s also when Rolling Thunder gets ugly.
Receiving an award of 2555 silver dollars in San Antonio Texas turns out to be as risky as dropping bombs on North Vietnam. Waiting for Rane at home are a group of Mexican thugs. Yes, the leaders, “The Texan” and “Automatic Slim”, are played by white actors, but don’t let that fool you. They’re Mexicans. After torturing Rane, sticking his hand in the garbage disposal, and murdering his wife and son — Why they kill Rane’s wife and son, mangle Rane’s hand, but don’t put a final bullet in Rane’s skull is left unanswered. —they escape across the border to Juarez. Rane, now armed with a sharpened metal hook in place of his hand, and a trunk full of pistols and sawed off shotguns, heads turns his Cadillac in the direction of The Rio Grande, and his revenge. Neither 7 years in a POW camp nor an amputation has slowed Rane down.
Conveniently without a wife and son, Rane is now free to hook up with Linda Forchet, and take her along for the ride. Even though we eventually learn that Forchet is almost as good with a shotgun as Rane, her character does little more than complain that he isn’t the man she thought he was. She’s such a stereotype of a nagging, clinging girlfriend she’s almost a cartoon. What’s more, the only reason Schrader seems to have written Forchet into the plot at all is so that he can dangle the blond-haired, blue-eyed Haynes in front of one would-be-Mexican rapist after another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect a politically correct portrayal of any criminal gang, of any ethnicity, in any film. I’m sure Mexican gangsters are just as rapey as Irish, Italian, Russian, or Anglo American gangsters. But I’m sorry, at some point, Rolling Thunder just goes off the rails, puts on a set of white sheets, and becomes Birth of a Nation. Schrader seems to be under the impression that the entire city of Juarez has never seen a white woman before, even though the whorehouse where the climatic shootout takes place has as many Anglo as Mexican prostitutes. The mere sight of Forchet seems enough to drive any Mexican into a frenzy of monstrous lust.
Rane ditches Forchet as soon as the film has established that all Mexican men are rapists, leaving her asleep in a motel and putting a stack of hundred dollar bills on the night-stand as if she were just another prostitute. Just how misogynistic Rolling Thunder really is becomes clear when he heads north to pick up Sergeant Vohden, who’s more than happy to cross the border and get in on Rane’s bloody revenge. “I’ve found the men who killed my son,” he says. What about his wife? Has he just forgotten about her, or does he still resent her affair with Cliff? As an aside, I kept hoping that Rolling Thunder would throw me a curve ball, setting up Cliff, perhaps, as the ultimate villain, but alas no. Cliff dies heroically in a shootout with the thugs who murdered Rane’s wife. He wants revenge as badly as Rane does.
There will, of course, be liberals who will act as apologists for Paul Schrader and Rolling Thunder, exactly the way there were liberals who acted as apologists for American Sniper. But don’t let arguments that Rolling Thunder is “ambiguous” or that it deconstructs Rane and Vohden, fool you. While Rolling Thunder may not sink quite so low as American Sniper and try to justify murdering children, it’s no The Searchers. Paul Schrader is no fool, but that’s part of the problem. Where John Ford used John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards to explore the soul of a military veteran so warped by violence and racism that he will never find a place in the civilian world, Schrader uses Ford’s classic film to diffuse any possible criticism of his fascist agenda. He drops just enough hints that he’s conscious of just how sick Rane and Vohden are to give himself an out. Vohden so clearly enjoys mass murder — “I’m here to kill a bunch of people,” he says to a prostitute he’s hired for the hour as a cover story. — that it’s temping to take it as an anti-war message. Do you see what being in Vietnam has done to these two men?
But Rolling Thunder is not an anti-war movie and Vohden is a hero, not a villain. Unlike the whiny Linda Forchet, he needs no convincing. He drops everything he’s doing as soon as Rane tells him he needs his help. Vohden is a psychotic killer, but he’s a psychotic killer with a heart of gold. Having learned nothing from the American defeat in Vietnam, Paul Schrader goes the full Donald Trump. “Do you see how easy it is to cross the border from Mexico to the United States?” he seems to be saying. “Now heroes like Rane and Vohden will just have fight another war. Please don’t let the liberals stab them in the back the way they did the first time.” Shot up, bloodied, but very much alive, Rane and Vohden win the war in Juarez as surely as they lost the war in Vietnam. Two years before Stallone’s First Blood, the character of the Vietnam Vet as the avenging superman has already been fully realized. It’s a specter that’s been haunting us ever since.