The Savage Stack - ROLLING THUNDER (1977)

William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones go on a revenge rampage in this Paul Schrader penned exploitation classic.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The twenty-fourth entry into this unbroken backlog is the iconic Vietnam vet revenge picture, Rolling Thunder

Paul Schrader wrote Rolling Thunder immediately after his script for Taxi Driver (’76). His original drafts painted a much different picture than the finished film director John Flynn (The Outfit) produced. In them, Major Charles Rane (eventually played by character actor royalty, William Devane) was a white trash racist, coming home from Vietnam and lauded as a hero, despite never having fired a single shot. His personal war is waged against the Mexican community of a small Texas town, whose presence Rane views as nothing more than an invasion of US soil. Schrader’s story ended with the Major going berserk, slaughtering several brown men in an act of suicidal magnificence mirroring Travis Bickle’s NYC rampage. When this writer asked Schrader about the excised scene from an early version where Rane spots Bickle at a drive-in porno theater, the genius screenwriter replied, “they were merely two gunships in the night, silently signaling one another.”

In that form, Rolling Thunder was (to paraphrase its author’s own analysis of the work in “Schrader on Schrader”) a comment on the United States’ occupation of Vietnam, and the racist attitudes Americans had toward that country’s people. But when AIP were through with their revisions, in Schrader’s eyes it was no longer a film about fascism, but rather a fascist film. Indeed, Flynn’s rampaging tale of revenge owns a Bronson-esque POV regarding its antihero’s single-minded quest for blood. Nevertheless, Rolling Thunder became an observation regarding the irreversible damage conflict can have on the psyches of our returning veterans. No matter how many parades you throw in their honor, these soldiers have to try and sleep at night while the screams of both the enemy and their comrades amalgamate into a personalized symphony of catastrophe. Like John Rambo after him, the war is never over” for Major Charles Rane. The era-specific commentary remains; it’s just been altered to fit a gentler version of the protagonist.

Denny Brooks serenades us* as Major Rane and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) prepare to land on a tiny Texas airstrip. They spent seven years in a Hanoi Hilton together, and only Rane is really ready to face the world. “Just put on your glasses,” he says to Vohden, after the Sergeant expresses doubts about being able to socialize after he steps off the plane. From a podium, the Major addresses the banner-waving admirers and high school marching band, saying he thinks his experiences overseas made a “better man, and a better American” out of him. But the country he calls home moved on while he was being beaten, tortured and thought dead for the better part of a decade. His wife (Lisa Blake Richards) tells him she’s been proposed to by a local deputy (Lawrason Driscoll), and she intends on saying “yes.” Meanwhile, Rane’s son asks the soldier if he remembers what the boy looked like when he was a baby (in a scene whose whole tenor was borrowed by Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction** [‘94]). Everything that was once welcoming is now alien, and even the base psychiatrist (Dabney Coleman) can’t do anything but reassure Rane that adjustment to civilian life is going to “take some time to get used to.”

Schrader’s cordial about it these days, but in the past, he’s all but disowned Rolling Thunder. When asked as to why he had such disdain for the film, he brushes it off as a misunderstanding, citing a conversation he had with producer Lawrence Gordon. “They cast the lead as the friend,” he says. However, this is one of those instances where an artist’s word may not be completely trustworthy. Devane is a stone cold force of will as Charles Rane, stoically accepting the punishments life continues to dole out even after he’s been sprung from the pit. Once informed that the mother of his child slept with another man, he doesn’t fly off into a rage. “I don’t think I’m up for any more of this,” he flatly intones, before retiring to the cot in his gun-lined back shed, neatly folding the sheets so that they’re a regulation fit. None of these folks meant him any harm, and every GI in that prison knew this alienation would more than likely happen to them once they got back. Devane conveys this resignation with a clenched-jaw sadness, addicted to military rigor and absolutely hypnotic for the entire runtime. Tommy Lee Jones may have been Schrader and Gordon’s first choice, but that doesn’t mean he was the best fit for the part.

The persistence of his bride’s new suitor reveals just how calm these waters aren’t, as Rane asks the deputy to rack him with a piece of household rope, the same way the Vietnamese would. “You learn to love the rope,” he says to the peace officer, chillingly admitting that all he may be able to feel now is advantageous pain. Devane sells this lack of sensitivity with a dead-eyed reluctance to broach social niceties. His Rane isn’t so much seething as he is inaudibly suffering, a Texan Christ who misses his cross. The Major doesn’t even want his wife back; just don’t separate the soldier from his son. It’s this delicate acquiescence Devane masters, allowing us to comprehend how Rane is going to exist in this Martian United States. The boy is his only purpose, not a family, and he’ll be damned if this new masculine force gets to call his kid “runt” or tries to tour his arena of pain.

Nobody was supposed to survive the home invasion that led to Rane getting one hand replaced with a hook and his son buried six feet deep. All the robbers wanted were the two thousand-plus silver dollars (one for every day he was imprisoned) a local department store gifted to the Major upon his coming home. While he mends in the hospital, Rane is tended to by a floozy (Linda Haynes) who wore a bracelet with his name on it while he was in that POW camp. “Can’t just let it slide, Major. They don’t have any right to live,” Johnny says, unknowingly describing a mission Rane was already planning in his head. The cops aren’t going to get a description, because this is his battle now. Those petty hoods stole whatever reason Rane had to continue moving forward, and once he learns how to keep a sawed-off steady on this new mechanical paw, they’re all going to die.

John Flynn was one of the great genre workmen who ever lived (may he now rest in peace), and he approaches Schrader and Heywood Gould’s new script with a rudimentarily effective eye for boxy scene construction. Even when Rane is outdoors, it feels claustrophobic, and the interiors are draped in horror movie shadows. Flynn was a master of creating lived-in spaces, and he pays the same attention to the Ranes’ wood paneled living room as he does Timothy’s Carey’s underworld poker den in The Outfit (’73) or a concrete prison corridor in Lock-up (’89). Barry De Vorzen’s pianos rattle on the soundtrack, injecting Flynn’s film with an eerie sense of impending doom. By the time Rane and his blonde-haired “groupie” are headed for the border, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) is capturing the dust they kick up the same way Peckinpah did when Bennie captained his Cadillac through Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (’74). Flynn’s films are all about immersive textures and light, so once the bullets start to fly during the final whorehouse shootout, we’re practically ducking in the theater.

Though the instinct to cast him as Rane seems off, Tommy Lee Jones is an absolute nightmare as Sergeant Vohden, staring past the existences of his friends and family toward the battlefield he left behind. Where Rane is at least able to partially normalize (despite some admitted rustiness on his small talk), Vohden can’t even bear the inconsequential nature of chit chat. When Rane arrives unannounced to pick him up for their “mission,” it’s possibly the only time Schrader’s examination of nationalist racism is retained, as the rest of his people discuss why they should or shouldn’t buy cars and televisions from “the Japs” (the patriarch and presumed WWII veteran is unquestionably against it). The race of Major Rane’s targets is never directly addressed; a mixture of anonymous white and Mexican men with silly criminal names like T-Bird and Automatic Slim. All that matters is what they did to his son, and once Rane delivers the news that he knows where they live, a light switches on behind Vohden’s black, lifeless eyes. “I’ll just get my gear,” he says, ready to go out in a blaze of glory ‘Nam never afforded him. Jones’ mechanical movements are chilling; doubly so when it’s clear he revels in the violence he’s called on to carry out.

“Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?” Rane’s companion shouts at one point, to which he says, “because that’s the only kind that’s left.” While Schrader’s original subtext regarding bigotry may have been lost thanks to producer meddling, Flynn’s film is still commenting on a world gone mad courtesy of combat. Whether you went “over there” or stayed home, the war completely distorted your worldview and basic human values. Heroes we once looked up to are really nothing more than traumatized men, looking to settle a score. Once that kill is made, there isn’t an enemy left for these boys to engage. They’re once again robbed of a sense of self; brainwashed into iron-jawed murder machines ready to be fed a subsequent target. For there is no going back once you’ve learned what it takes to emerge from battle seemingly unscathed. Almost a decade later, John J. tells us “to survive a war, you’ve gotta become war,” in First Blood: Part Two (’85). Rane was his prototype; a tin man who would never rediscover the heart he lost, and can now possibly only fill the void where it was by standing over the gravestones of his adversaries. We all died in Vietnam.

*With his song “San Antone”, which would be later be used by William Peter Blatty in his own PTSD nightmare, The Ninth Configuration.

**” The Gold Watch” speech isn’t the only debt QT owes this movie, as he used to operate a mostly repertory DVD line called Rolling Thunder Pictures.

Rolling Thunder is available now on Blu-ray, courtesy of Shout Factory.

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