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  • Jacob Knight

When I Was Alive: Rolling Thunder (1977)

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

“That’s what we used to call it...back when we were alive.”

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2003) is damn near obsessed with both the physical and spiritual destruction of the male body. Upper crust Manhattan drug dealer Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) is going to jail. The DEA’s case is rock solid, thanks to someone very near and dear to Brogan dropping the dime on the former preppie hoops star. Now, Monty’s mince meat for the animals awaiting his arrival in Otisville. Because Monty’s pretty. And you know what happens to pretty boys in prison, right?

Brogan’s fear is so visceral that he asks his scummy Wall Street buddy (Barry Pepper) for a simple favor: beat the fucking shit out of me. This is after receiving macho advice from seemingly every man he comes into contact with, from a nightclub bouncer (Patrice O’Neal) to his Russian gangster boss (Levan Uchaneishvili). For Monty, getting turned out is the ultimate violation of his masculinity, and that junkyard insecurity drives him to try and deform his own face via his childhood friend’s bony fists. Were this a Cronenberg movie, he’d grow reptilian scales over his asshole (or get the point).

But this isn’t Toronto. It’s New York, baby. Monty becomes a human stand-in for how the city (not to mention the United States as a whole) was violated on a global scale thanks to 9/11. All of our prejudices bubbled up to the surface, as we screamed “fuck you!” into a mirror at those we thought were to blame for “cheapening” America, when we really should’ve been reckoning with how our own mistakes brought such a cataclysmic event to our doorstep. Per usual, Spike Lee was just ahead of the curve, making the definitive picture about America’s collective psychic trauma at the hands of terrorists a mere year after two planes hit the Twin Towers.

In John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977), we don’t get to see Major Charles Rane (Billy Devane) consider his own spiritual mortality. No, we meet him after the Air Force ace has been beaten and tortured for seven years in a Hanoi Pit of Hell. Two-hundred-and-fifty-five days: that’s how long he rotted away with his fellow servicemen. Twice daily, he’d be brought into a small room and manually racked with rope, a jailor yanking his arms way over his head until they could all “hear the bones crack”.

Imagine the worst parts of the Bible, and you're pretty close to what Charlie's routine became as a 'Nam era POW. Yet the Major knew he had to somehow remain a beacon of hope for good soldier boys like Johnny Vhoden (Tommy Lee Jones), who’d come to Rane’s desperate corner just to salute the makeshift American flag the Major stitched out of loose pieces of cloth. In turn, when the lighter’s held to his hand, all Charlie does is recite the military ID he’s been broken down to instead of giving his captors the satisfaction of knowing just how decimated he is. Protection and loyalty were the good prisoner's only primary objectives.

However, in the original drafts of Paul Schrader’s script for Rolling Thunder (1977), Major Charles Rane isn’t a hero. Hell, the pilot barely saw any action. Still, his status as a survivor trumps everything else, including the man’s near blinding hatred of "foreigners" (read: Mexicans). Rane is (to quote Schrader) “a Texas trash racist who became a hero without even firing a shot”. An incorporeal cousin to Travis Bickle, the infamous cabby even makes an appearance at a drive-in theater still showing Deep Throat (1972): both men poised on the brink of violence, eventually pushed over the edge and concocting suicide missions that’d make Sam Peckinpah proud.

Like Monty Brogan, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) could be seen as representing something much larger than a broken individual, but also a country devastated by the conflict in Vietnam. After all, Rolling Thunder takes its title from the actual code name for American air strikes staged during the war between '65-'72. Though he speaks of how serving “made a better man out of him” upon returning home from captivity, Rane’s seething rage at his Vietnamese jailors is unleashed upon a cadre of Texican banditos who invade his home, gruesomely remove his hand (via a gurgling garbage disposal), and ultimately slaughter his estranged wife and kid.

All the while, the solider remains stoic - war having crafted an empty vessel that used to house a human soul. Because what Automatic Slim (Luke Askew) and the rest of his robbing, murdering cohorts don’t realize is that they’ve unwittingly transformed a foreign invader into a righteous crusader. There’s now a sympathetic justification for the violence Rane has been trained to unleash, as he’s been ironically transformed into the conservative equivalent of a Viet Cong grunt. As such, Rane utilizes guerilla tactics to take out the men who invaded his home and brutally offed his loved ones. Schrader’s never been a subtle penman, but Rolling Thunder is downright bull-horning its themes at you from the page, inventing a walking avatar for imperialist vengeance.

Nevertheless, it’s tough to reconcile the Rane from Schrader’s original script with the Rane that’s present in Flynn’s unapologetic exploitation movie. Future Boys From Brazil (1978) screenwriter Heywood Gould was brought in to do both a punch up and daily re-writes while Flynn lensed the flick, shaping Schrader’s Taxi Driver (1974) companion piece into a slightly more palatable revenge actioner. Where we’re undoubtedly supposed to hold moral court over Rane’s actions on paper, he becomes a roaring anti-hero on celluloid, hacking men to ribbons with his newly fitted hook hand before recruiting ol' Johnny Boy to turn a Mexican brothel into the goddamn Wild Bunch (1968). In short, it’s a far more entertaining finished product, but loses a bit of Schrader’s acidic punch; confrontational art squaring off against stereotypically exploitative commerce.

Still, Devane's more than game, owning a thousand-yard-stare that's open for interpretation, depending on who he's interacting with. To Johnny, the Major’s not just a leader, but also a big brother, bluntly instructing his comrade to slide Aviators over his eyes when Vhoden complains that he’s not able to “face all those people” upon returning to Texas. For a welcoming crowd, Rane rises to the challenge, peddling the Army’s bullshit about service, honor and country, knowing full well a solid subsection of America turned their backs on the soldiers while they were sweating to stay alive in the bush. Undaunted, he keeps his farewell to Johnny curtly stoic, as the young buck asks the major to drop on by, should he ever get down to El Paso anytime soon.

Once Rane’s "home" is when the cracks start to show, as Charlie struggles to connect with a son he hasn’t seen since the boy was an infant, and a wife (Lisa Blake Richards) who’s since fallen in love with kindly local deputy, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll). “I don’t think I’m up for much more of this,” he says, after his partner painfully confesses her strained infidelity. Almost immediately, the Major retreats to a work shed out back, making it up like his former one bed bunk room. He tried to play dutiful husband, but just couldn't hack it. In his head, flashes of VC torturers lift Charlie off the floor with their crude ropes, unintelligible chants rattling off the walls of his aching skull.

“You learn to love the rope,” Rane tells Cliff, once the deputy arrives out back, beer in hand like some sort of redneck olive branch. "That’s how you beat the people who torture you: you learn to love ‘em.” Perhaps too macho, proud, or stupid to take a hint, Cliff engages in a rather frightening bit of role play with the Major, applying his own rope to the soldier’s body while the empty vessel screams “higher! higher!”, pushing the interaction to terrifying levels of intensity as an obvious warning to the lawman regarding whose family he’s breaking up. “Don’t you call my kid a runt,” is the final gauntlet Rane leaves Cliff with, letting the deputy know that, while he may take Charlie’s place as the boy’s full-time father, that’s still his flesh and blood, and he’ll be damned if any interloper is going to insult his masculine lineage.

Perhaps the most impressive piece of Devane’s performance is that he’s asked to run this emotional gamut before he becomes the movie’s central vigilante, hunting his family's killers with a near unparalleled predatory instinct. Devane obviously connected with both versions of Rane that Schrader and Gould put on the page, bringing the Major to life in a way that feels emotionally volatile and distantly icy, all at once. Though he’s obviously an unwell man, the character actor hall-of-famer still finds a way to make us root for Charlie’s bloody trail of revenge during its final third, even as we question whether or not we should be cheering on such an obvious stone cold psychopath.

Unfortunately, Schrader doesn’t agree with this assessment. One of the many early works the author disowned after it was taken out of his hands (Brian De Palma’s Obsession [1976] being another prime example), Schrader partially blames Devane’s casting for his displeasure with the final film. “We made the lead the buddy,” is what Schrader recalls executive producer Lawrence Gordon saying to him, flat out admitting that not fitting Tommy Lee Jones for Major Rane’s uniform was a fatal mistake in the making of Rolling Thunder.

Truth be told, this rather blunt dismantling of the movie’s cast seems unfair to both Devane and Jones, as it disqualifies two equally stellar turns for no reason outside of retroactive vanity. Indeed, Jones is a true scene stealer, his eyes gazing toward the very edge of oblivion as his shit-kicker clan argue about whether or not they’d ever buy one of them “Jap TVs” over an American one. Once Rane walks through the door, announcing that he’s found the man who killed his son, Jones simply intones “I’ll just get my gear”, tapping into Vhoden’s true calling as a killer with no real role left to play in the straight world.

Though Schrader envisioned Rane as a spiritual cousin to Bickle, Vhoden actually feels more connected to the sleepless NYC maniac. Both of these men are now stranded in the United States, searching for a new war to fight. Much how Bickle becomes an unlikely “hero” by Taxi Driver's end, saving Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute almost entirely by happenstance, Vhoden’s blaze of glory is a good ol’ boy’s wet dream, mowing a bunch of bad brown folks down and probably hoping that some of the return fire catches him straight in the heart, sending him off to the ultimate promised land. All one has to do is listen to the solemnly respectful way Johnny says goodbye to his daddy, dressed up in his service uniform, heading off to finally bite it in battle the way he was supposed to, before the enemy tossed him in the snake pit.

Here’s the thing: Devane could’ve totally sold Johnny’s dead-eyed delight at being able to help his best buddy/commander out when he needs him most. Hell, he’s operating on the same wavelength when he asks Cliff to psychically transport him back to 'Nam with that rope. Ditto Jones’ obvious ability to navigate the seemingly endless array of social masks Rane dons once he returns home. Yet Devane never really ascended past his status as a lifer “that guy”, taking memorable side roles in everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976) to appearing as the dang President in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). For Devane, Charles Rane would serve as an apex of sorts; a rare meaty lead he defined for himself. For Jones, the Major would merely be an artifact, perhaps cheapening his turn as a “lesser, minor” character in hindsight. To wit, swapping the boys would be disrespectfully toying with two timelines without properly recognizing what such foolish daydreaming means to either career.

Bringing it back to poor Mr. Brogan, there’s a reason Lee chose to adapt screenwriter David Benioff’s novel into a 140-minute wake; a funeral for a friend who won’t be coming back in any shape that resembles the one in which he left. The only pal of Monty's who truly acknowledges the gravity of this spiritual death is Wall Street rager, Frank, who bluntly says, “way I see it, he’s got three choices: he runs, he catches the bullet train, or he goes to jail. Either way, he’s fucked.” In case we didn’t get the message, Terence Blanchard’s marching, eulogistic score drives it all home, allowing us to cry into our glasses of Cristal, becoming members of Monty’s entourage for one last tumultuous party.

Yet there is no such mourning for Charles Rane or Johnny Vhoden, whose souls were beaten and dragged from their bodies and then ground into dust, all in the name of defending their country. No, these men are now ghosts, haunting the stark purgatory of Texas, searching for anything that might spark a feeling that resembled what they used to call “living”. For all of Flynn’s entertaining genre trappings and Schrader’s existential authorial flourishes, Rolling Thunder is mostly a reminder that, at some point in every human being’s existence, they will likely suffer in a fashion that inexorably changes them forever. The lucky ones will simply pass on into whatever awaits us after our time on this mortal coil. The rest will pine for that box in the ground, perhaps embarking upon a suicide mission that will put them there quicker. Unfortunately for Rane and Vhoden, neither died on their final mission. Instead, they became heroes in their own minds.

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