Today: February 22, 2024

Rolling Thunder

Shot down over Vietnam, US Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home to Texas after seven long years of torture and degradation as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Shot down over Vietnam, US Air Force Major Charles Rane (William
Devane) returns home to Texas after seven long years of torture and degradation
as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
Hailed as a hero, he’s presented with a box of silver dollars
($2500, one for every day of his captivity), the keys to a brand new Cadillac
convertible and he’s reunited with his wife (Lisa Richards) and the son he last saw as a toddler.

Unable to sleep,
haunted by memories of his captivity, Rane tries to settle back into his life
and to make sense of a world he no longer has a place in. He’s an empty husk, rendered a dead man
walking by his experiences. When,
on his first night home, his wife tells him she’s been unfaithful and is
leaving him for family friend and local cop Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), he greets the news with blankness, impassive
acceptance, only communicating the rage lurking within him to the Air Force
shrink (Dabney Coleman) tasked with
easing him back into society.

When a gang of good
ol’ boy thugs (among them Dukes Of
veteran James Best and Peckinpah favourite Luke Askew) break into his house intent
on stealing the silver dollars, they beat and torture him, Rane soaking up the
punishment with the same mute stoicism he met his wife’s infidelity, refusing
to talk even when they force his hand into the sink’s waste disposal. When his wife and son interrupt the
interrogation, the gang murder them and leave Rane for dead.

But Rane is a hard
man to kill. He survives, he
endures. Waking up in hospital,
his mangled hand replaced with a prosthetic hook, Rane finally finds a purpose
and sets out for revenge…

Based on a
screenplay by Paul Schrader & Heywood Gould with solid, workmanlike
B-movie direction by John Flynn and belonging to the cycle of revenge movies that sprang up in the wake of Michael Winner’s Death Wish, Rolling Thunder is a forgotten exploitation gem. Written after Taxi Driver and The Yakuza,
Rane is a classic Schrader hero; a taciturn, alienated, masochist. Isolated and alone, he’s adrift in
society, a ticking timebomb just looking for somewhere to explode and Devane, a
gifted actor who just never became the star he should have been, is fantastic
in the role, his passivity hinting at the violence and rage churning within,
flashes of his glittering dead eyes and tight, shark grin suggesting the
predator he’ll become.

Unable to adjust to
freedom, Rane recreates his cell in his shed, sleeping there, exercising there,
flashbacks emphasising that mentally he is still in prison. Publicly hiding behind the dark
sunglasses that hide his dead eyes, his passivity and desire for punishment is
mistaken by all around him as strength, as heroism. When asked by his wife’s lover Cliff how he survived he
replies flatly: “You learn to love
the rope. That’s how you beat ’em. That’s how you beat people who torture you.
You learn to love ’em. Then they don’t know you’re beatin’ ’em.” He only
comes to life when reenacting his torture with Cliff, encouraging him to be
rougher. When the gang attack him,
his refusal to talk isn’t toughness; it’s a desire to feel something, anything,
even if it is pain.

He’s empty inside,
a burnt-out case. As he later
tells cocktail waitress and groupie Linda (Linda
): “It’s like my eyes
are open and I’m looking at you but I’m dead. They’ve pulled out whatever it
was inside of me. It never hurt at all after that and it never will.” As with
most Schrader heroes whether it’s Taxi
’s Travis Bickle or Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, he’s emasculated, powerless, the only way he can find
peace is through the violent assertion of his masculinity. The only way Rane can feel whole is to
kill those who have wronged him. Aided
by former cellmate and fellow dead man walking Johnny, played by a young,
magnetic Tommy Lee Jones. Who is
similarly unable to adjust and seems to share an almost homoerotic tension with
Rane (who knows what went on when the lights were out? What happens in Hanoi, stays in
Hanoi…), Rane heads down Mexico-way to enact his brutal vengeance in a messy,
chaotic whorehouse shootout that is as much the consummation of their love as
it is an excuse for these two broken men to take control of their lives.

A down and dirty
revenge flick that’s part modern-day Western, part psychological drama, Rolling
Thunder’s finally getting the re-release it deserves. And
yes, Devane does sharpen up that hook and use it exactly how you want him

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email:

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