Home Video Hovel: Rolling Thunder, by Scott Nye
One of the attributes genre fans use to intellectually bolster what can sometimes be considered a disreputable mode of storytelling is that such works are, almost inevitably, reflections of the era in which they were produced. Due to their cheap production values and often rushed creation, many of the decisions are almost reflexive, from cars to jobs to gender relations to political climate to far more ethereal concerns like the human condition. Rolling Thunder (1977), a post-Vietnam reflection on the fractured psyche of veterans gussied up as a revenge thriller, isn’t shy about its more timely themes, but, ironically, as soon as it shifts into an almost pure genre gear, it loses much of the visceral power that drives its comparatively more sedate sections.
William Devane stars as Major Charles Rane, who’s just returned from a Hanoi prison after seven years, and wants nothing more than to settle back into normal life with his wife and son. Unfortunately, she’s taken up with another man, who in turn wants to move her and the boy to another town, which might be for the best, because Charles isn’t exactly himself anymore. He puts on a kindly front, and has genuine warmth towards his son, but when left alone, exhibits a series of behaviors that suggest his techniques for mentally surviving his prison time might have left him somewhat addicted to punishment. This is all really strong stuff, and Devane plays it very well, managing a desire to project a certain stoicism, masking an aching vulnerability and a tremendous amount of self-doubt. It’s not until tragedy strikes, and Charles is given an outlet for his boiling rage, that the film starts to stray.
Had the film not introduced the extent to which Charles’ psyche was damaged, I’d be more than fine to go along with its revenge-on-the-road thrills, but the film loses this element almost entirely, content to let us wallow in then-gruesome, now-kind-of-tame violence as a substitute for the soul-searching he had started to undergo. The basic structure of the film is very good, letting us consider how this tortured man (in every sense of the word) becomes the torturer, but I can’t help but feel like I drew that independently, and that it’s not really on the film’s mind at all. The first third of the film is replete with small snippets of flashbacks, as everything back home starts to remind Charles of the ordeal he went through, but those are virtually absent from the second half, when they could have been most effective.
As a consideration of the lasting damage of war, it still stands up all right, and the film should certainly be commended for being among the first out of the gate to apply this to the Vietnam conflict. But it is hardly a total picture, a total statement or feeling, and it suffers for its contentment.
The new Blu-ray from Shout! Factory looks very good, keeping the sort of muted color palette inherent to the era, while still presenting us with a fairly sharp image. I noticed some smudging here and there, but it was difficult to tell if that was on the part of the transfer or the source print. The only special feature of any substance is a short making-of featurette featuring interviews with Devane, co-writers Heywood Gould and Paul Schrader (yep, that Paul Schrader), and co-star Tommy Lee Jones (is there any other?). It’s a solid look at the development and production of the film, and its subsequent reputation, but definitely don’t watch it until after you’ve seen the film.