Rolling Thunder (1977)
Incarcerated in a POW camp for eight years during the Vietnam War, Major Charles Rane returns back home as a national hero and is awarded a silver dollar for every day of his ordeal. Despite the positive press coverage of a returning hero, the reality is far different. Alienated from his family and institutionalised, he sleeps in the garage unable to adjust to normal life. An attack by criminals seeking the silver dollars leaves him maimed and his wife and son dead. He survives the ordeal and seeks revenge, knowing that it will bring him no peace or serve any purpose. It is simply the only option he has.
Vigilante and revenge films were big box office in the seventies. What makes Rolling Thunder a cut above the rest is that it was written by Paul Schrader. Overlooked on its initial release this low-budget gem boasts well defined characters and paints a credible picture of the psychological trauma suffered by US veterans. John Flynn's hard-hitting direction, aided by outstandingly performances by William Devane, Linda Haynes and Tommy Lee Jones, bleakly shows three disconnected souls trying to survive in a world that they can no longer function in.
Initially a human drama confronting the issues faced by returning Vietnam soldiers, it suddenly transforms into a brutal, nihilistic revenge film. Paradoxically, violence is never glamorised. It is simply shown as an inevitable consequence. The narrative is aided by Barry DeVorzon soundtrack and Jordan Cronenweth's stark photography. The deadpan script is sparse but still conveys the torment and bleakness of the central protagonists. This is a film with little sentiment although it does explore close friendships that are forged by common experience.
Rolling Thunder is an extremely well-acted, written and crafted film. It touches on many social issues but rather than moralising about them, merely shows them for what they are. The ending is dour and violent but could there have been any other possible outcome that was credible? Although originally scheduled to be released by Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio executives were perturbed by the violence in the final edit and the decision was made to sell it off to American International Pictures. It should also be noted that the lead role was initially offered to Kris Kristofferson.