When Charlie comes marching home again…
A POW returns from Hanoi to find his family have moved on with their lives without him. But when four men steal a gift of over 2000 silver dollars from his home before killing his wife and son, he recruits a fellow veteran to get revenge.
Falling somewhere between post-Vietnam war horror and your average exploitation flick, ‘Rolling Thunder’ starts out as a portrait of life for returning veterans and POWs but then gradually builds into a violent and chilling climax. While describing ‘Rolling Thunder’ as horror is somewhat inaccurate, there is something about the film that is intense and haunting, even more so when you consider the fact that the film’s protagonist, Maj. Charles Rane (William Devane), doesn’t consider himself alive anymore. Late in the film, he and his self-described “groupie” Linda (Linda Haynes) sit in the back of his car and listen to a country song on the radio. Rane comments that he remembered the song from when he was alive. The comment confuses Linda, but he explains that that’s what he and his fellow POWs call the time before they were captured. He knows he’s already a dead man, and the film makes every effort to realize that we also understand this.
There is a pervasive sense of alienation and disconnect throughout ‘Rolling Thunder’. It starts right at the film’s beginning, when we see Rane and fellow POW Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones, in an early performance) on the plane that brings them home to Texas. They sit silently, nothing to say to one another, no sense of joy at coming back. As they exit the plane, Johnny in particular reacts to the welcoming crowds with a look of horror, almost repulsed at the cheers. In fact, most of the scenes between Johnny and Rane are silent, or have such minimal dialogue that it seems they almost have a kind of psychic connection. Nothing needs to be said when both know exactly what needs to be done.
‘Rolling Thunder’ boasts not only an outstanding cast that also features other familiar faces like Dabney Coleman and Luke Askew, but a blistering script from ‘Taxi Driver’ author Paul Schrader and a throbbing electronic score by Barry De Vorzon (‘The Warriors’, ‘Night Of The Creeps’). The film is nearly perfect in execution, aside from the odd idea of the film’s antagonists stealing close to three thousand silver dollars. Even in the ‘70s, this seems like a small amount to steal from someone, particularly someone who just survived a POW torture camp for seven years and has almost nothing to lose. These thieves are clearly not the most intelligent, nor are they really out for big game here, so that whole plot point seems out of place. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, particularly by the end of the film, which explodes in a shocking display of violence. Here is where Rane finally gets all four of his family’s murderers in one convenient place (a bordello, natch), and the nearly-ten minute shootout that follows is a complete bloodbath. This is also where Jones’ character truly comes to life, which makes the scene all the more disturbing. Johnny almost gleefully blasts and slashes through anyone in sight; prior to this, he seemed all but dead.
It’s not uncommon to hear men returning from war referred to as “the walking dead,” and never more so when it comes to Vietnam. ‘Rolling Thunder’ shows us up close how sometimes the war does not end for some, and how disconnected from emotion and humanity some men become when they come back home. It is a chilling film, and a somber one, and probably one of the best revenge films to come out of the ‘70s. It never devolves into silliness, nor does it ever wink at the audience or make attempts at humor. ‘Rolling Thunder’ is a serious film, and a seriously good one at that.
Trailer at YouTube.