In 1973 or thereabouts, Paul Schrader wrote two scripts, both about Vietnam veterans who brought the violence of their war back to America. Both scripts were subsequently filmed; one would become Taxi Driver, widely reckoned to be one of the very greatest films ever made. The other would emerge, re-written by other hands, to a more luke-warm reception. It is called Rolling Thunder.

It is set in Texas, where Major Charles Rane has returned home after seven years of captivity and torture at the hands of the Vietcong. His community is grateful to have him back – they have raised a large sum of money, which is presented to him with much hullaballoo – but Rane is more circumspect, curiously numb to the rituals of homecoming and even taking his wife's confession of adultery with equanimity.

However, the Major's return has attracted unwelcome attention. Some nogoodniks want the money he was given; they mutilate his hand and kill his wife and child. Rane duly seeks revenge, but the revenge here is of a different quality to that of almost every other film.

Rolling

For all he is a righteous avenger, Rane remains as numb as he as before. While his motivations are clear-cut, we never get the sense of any passion behind them; even after his family are slaughtered, there are no tearstained lamentations, which adds a cold and troubling edge to his retribution. William Devane (who plays Rane) damps down his performance and suppresses emotion; the eyes might be the most important part of an actor's toolbox but we seldom see Devane's eyes here; they're often hidden either by shadow or behind sunglasses.

But we don't need to see his eyes to know he's suffering the mother of all post-traumatic stress disorders: he and his fellow captives, he tells us, referred to the period before their detention as when they were 'alive'. There's a particularly disturbing sequence early on where Rane demonstrates the torture to which he was subjected twice daily: the only way to survive it, he says, was to learn to enjoy it.

That doesn't mean that Rane is a masochist (although he takes his fair share of punishment throughout the film) but that normal human feeling has been hollowed out, and replaced by violence. The pursuit of his quarry seems less a moral imperative, more a way of feeling something again.

Rolling Thunder

It is, then, some way from revenge fantasies like Death Wish. Rather, this is an implicit attack on the morality of the Vietnam war ('Rolling Thunder' was the name the USAF gave to their bombing operation in Vietnam). It suggests that the American adventure in Indochina did something to the soul of both the combatants and the country.

Moreover, it is also one of the few films that even tackles – let alone understands – the emotions of soldiers trying to return to their pre-war lives (when they were 'alive'); other films that do so are The Best Years of Our Lives and The Deer Hunter; Rolling Thunder is the most forthright, and the most unsparing, of these.

We might wonder why a film this good doesn't have more of a reputation. Part of the reason is prosaic: William Devane is a fine actor but never became a star and director John Flynn has never attracted much attention from the critics. It hasn't helped that Paul Schrader has loudly rejected the film, grousing that his script was bowdlerised.

Rolling ThunderImage: Original 1977 VHS sleeve for Rolling Thunder – artwork from another era!

But perhaps its comparative obscurity is really due to tone: although it superficially resembles a conventional action film – too much so, perhaps, to attract the sort of audiences who might properly appreciate it – this is no thrill ride: it offers little comfort for the viewer, forcing us to follow a very damaged man.

Still, its reputation is expanding: it is one of Quentin Tarantino's favourites (there's a scene here involving a makeshift American flag which may have influenced the tale of the gold watch in Pulp Fiction) and the excellent DVD/ Blu-ray from Studio Canal allows us to see the film to its best advantage. And as we contemplate soldiers returning from more recent unwise foreign adventures, perhaps it is a film whose time has come.

 

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