Videodrome :: Rolling Thunder (1977)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A new column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)

“Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?” “…Cause that’s the only kind that’s left.”

This cynical exchange between U.S. Air Force Major Charles Rane and bar-tarred, war vet groupie Linda Forchet captures the essence of Rolling Thunder, an underrated 1977 revenge pic exploring the emotional numbness and brooding desperation of Vietnam veterans returning to a hollow, suburbanized America that moved on without them.

Popularly billed as a shoot ‘em up, Rolling Thunder packs a surprising amount of psychological baggage. In some ways it shares a kinship with serious post-Vietnam war meditations on PTSD, insanity and confusion, in the vein of The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July and Coming Home. In other ways, it serves notice as a rugged, violent crime drama, where the body count threatens to rise.

Major Rane is the story’s protagonist and primary sociopath. Tortured and abused for seven years in a Hanoi POW camp, Rane survived by “learning to love the rope.” In other words, he explains, the only way to beat your tormenters is to become friends with the pain.

His tragic role is played with aplomb by William Devane, a ubiquitous character actor whose work, perhaps most recognizably on Knot’s Landing, has never been so fierce. Soft spoken and clearly damaged, Devane’s Major Rane exudes uneasiness and violence behind a placid disposition and a pair of aviator shades.

Returning stateside where his wife has moved on and his young son doesn’t remember him, Rane attempts to reconnect to the Texas Hill Country home he once knew. He accepts with dignity his wife’s dalliance with another man, treats everyone respectfully and attends therapy sessions with a military shrink intent on helping him cope. But the war and imprisonment have seriously fried this dude’s circuits. He sleeps on the floor in the garage, becomes distant with his family and demonstrates disturbing masochistic tendencies. When he politely asks Cliff, his wife’s lover, to not call his son a runt, his distant smile seems to say that this is man is capable of calculated acts of murderous barbarism (no spoiler alert necessary).

After a rowdy Spanglish-speaking band of cretins invade his home, we get a first glimpse of the monster within. Refusing to give up about $2,500 in silver dollars (a welcome home gift from the city), Rane instead chooses to have his hand mangled in the kitchen garbage disposal. He then watches the thieves murder his family before shooting Rane several times and leaving him for dead. End scene.

The film takes a turn toward grindhouse from this point onward–as Rane methodically dedicates himself to finding and inflicting maximum carnage on the fiends–but it is not without deft direction and some memorable creative touches. For one thing, Rane replaces his ruined arm with a prosthetic hook weapon, which instantly places him alongside Ash from The Evil Dead trilogy and Roy Munson from Kingpin on the list of cinema’s greatest one-armed characters.

Only the good shit. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support.

To continue reading, become a member or log in.