American International Pictures (AIP), although ceasing to be after the 1970’s, fulfilled an important role in American film history for many years as the purveyors of low budget exploitation glee that embraced rock and roll, saucy beach party movies as well as a number of horror films, some of which became cult classics. Roger Corman was fundamental to the AIP’s success but many others cut their teeth on AIP productions and the studio launched the careers of a number of respected (and not so respected) filmmakers. AIP was also responsible for the US distribution of Hammer films and even some Carry On films. So a re-issue of the studio’s 1977 Vietnam veteran film Rolling Thunder is very welcome. It’s a low budget violent revenge film which also addresses issues concerning the Vietnam war despite its basic construction as a popularist exploitation flick.
Major Charles Rane has returned from Vietnam after a horrendous tour of duty that saw his capture, torture and breakdown. Although his homecoming is welcomed by his entire community, he has to come to terms with civilian life again. There are a number of issues he needs to address, not least of which are his relationships with his wife, who thought he had been killed in action, and his son, who can’t remember him because Rane departed for war so early in his short life. Not only that but Rane has come back to what appears to be a broken society. He is brutally tortured, losing his hand in a garbage disposal unit, and his family are killed by a group of reprobates who invade his home in search of his money. Rane decides to instigate a violent reprisal towards the perpetrators, whatever the cost.
Rolling Thunder appeals on a number of levels. At the time it was made, the Vietnam war had yet to see broad critical acceptance as a subject in the film world; it was made prior to the widely regarded The Deer Hunter (1978). Rolling Thunder takes a different approach to telling the story of returning soldiers; from a contemporary perspective we would generally expect to see action and violence in a Vietnam veteran movie, but normally this would be in the context of a war environment and not from the perspective of a violent society back home. The script was written by Paul Schrader, following his work on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Brian de Palma’s Obsession (1976), both of which bear a number of similar themes: the former in a multitude of ways that address the social need for violent retribution and (less clearly indicated perhaps) the central character’s former military occupation and the latter – through relationships and dialogue – through the heart-rending loss of a spouse and child. It also, in many ways, addresses the central character’s experience of his torture during the war, in a way not seen in cinema since The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which gives us an alternative perspective to war other than battle scenes.
Never less than engaging throughout its running time Rolling Thunder, like the best of AIP’s films, mixes violence and brutality that appeals to the exploitation market (these scenes are strong and confrontational although infrequent and plot-driven) with a dialogue based screenplay at its finest. No wonder it ranks amongst Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films. Recommended, but perhaps not for those who detest graphic violence or those who are just looking for mainstream action. Rolling Thunder is a cult essential that balances the fine line between cultural and emotional themes with exploitation violence and action.