Today: February 28, 2024

Thunderbolt And Lightfoot

The last golden age of American film ended with the collapse of a major Hollywood studio. The era known as New Hollywood began in the late 1960s with the production of vital, urgent films such as Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider and The Godfather. These films took inspiration from European and Asian cinema to create a cinematic language that was both refreshingly new and perfectly in tune with the revolutionary values of the time. The critical and financial success of these films was so great that it put pressure on the studio system to give directors more freedom to pursue their individual visions. However, while the lack of studio oversight made it easier for talented and focused individuals to produce great films, it also made it much easier for confused, arrogant and drug-addled individuals to produce cataclysmic failures such as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. To this day, Cimino is remembered as the man who destroyed United Artists and killed New Hollywood but the real source of the problem lay in the fact that a cinematic language that seemed unique and vibrant in 1967 felt bloated, distant and self-regarding in 1980. A generation on and even Michael Cimino’s earlier films seem tired and derivative. In fact, Cimino’s first film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is more Lightfoot than it is Thunderbolt.

Set in one of the dustier corners of America, the film opens with a charming rogue named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) stealing a sports car and nearly running over a priest. The priest is a retired crook named Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) who is on the run from a group of gunmen. Thunderbolt takes his name from the fact that he used to break into bank vaults using an anti-tank canon and the men chasing after him are members of his old gang who think that he double-crossed them and left with all the loot from their last job. When the gunmen finally catch up with them, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot manage to convince the ferocious Leary (George Kennedy) and the warm-hearted Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) that they should all team up and pull a new heist.

While much of the film’s narrative revolves around an elaborate and well-executed heist, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is more of a New Hollywood road movie than it is a caper picture. Much like Billy and Wyatt in Easy Rider or The Driver and The Mechanic in Two-Lane Blacktop, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot drive across the American heartland sharing strange visions and encountering strange people. The road movie is one of the signature genres of New Hollywood as the structure of the films allowed filmmakers to use the grammar of European art house film and the vocabulary of US Culture to produce deeper commentaries on American society and the human condition. However, while the social criticism of Easy Rider and the existentialism of Two-Lane Blacktop are beautifully rendered and instantly comprehensible, Cimino struggles to find a deeper meaning for his own film. Eastwood and Bridges are both absolutely sensational in their roles but their encounters with various hookers, tourists, gas station attendants and bank employees never achieve the level of symbolic resonance common to most New Hollywood road movies. The sense that Cimino is using a cinematic language he does not fully comprehend is particularly obvious in a scene where the boys hitch a lift with an insane person who travels with a caged raccoon and a boot full of rabbits; this encounter signifies absolutely nothing and has no bearing on the plot but its bargain basement surrealism certainly does recall the more pointed dream-like symbolism of better films from that era.

One of the great joys of New Hollywood films is their generous ambiguity. Most of the great films produced by Hollywood in the 1970s feel a lot more like European art films in that their directors were willing to stand back from the plot and the characters in order to let the audience make up their own minds about what it was that they were seeing on the screen. One of the side effects of this style of storytelling is a certain degree of narrative slackness as art house directors know to give their audience time in which to come up with their own interpretation of events. As with the surrealism, Cimino does an excellent job of recreating the artsy feel of New Hollywood films but proves incapable of providing the delicate ambiguities that demand a slackened pace and require the audience to make up their own minds. With nothing to think about or interpret the audience is left surveying the beautiful countryside while Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges drive about the place with nothing to do until the heist sub-plot turns up and tightens the narrative into a more traditional shape.

The heist sequence is beautifully conceived, expertly implemented and by far and away the single most enjoyable thing about this film. In fact, the heist sequence is so much more entertaining and interesting than the dream sequences and car journeys across the American heartland that one cannot help but wish that Cimino had simply refused to jump on the New Hollywood bandwagon and made a traditional heist movie instead.

Charming and delightful but utterly devoid of deeper meaning, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot suggests that New Hollywood was in trouble long before the expensive failures of Heaven’s Gate and Sorcerer. An approach to filmmaking that began by capturing the ambiguities of the public mind and encouraging people to think for themselves had ossified into a set of tropes and techniques that could be applied to even the slightest of traditional films. The sad truth about New Hollywood is that once the initial creative energy was spent, the movement struggled to renew itself and so grew decadent. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is what happens when decadent self-indulgence and pastiche get mistaken for art.

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