In 1973, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home to San Antonio with Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), and two other soldiers, after spending seven years as a POW in Hanoi. He finds a home very different from the one he left when he meets his wife Janet (Lisa Richards), his son Mark (Jordan Gerler), and local policeman Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), waiting to drive him home. Rane soon realizes that his son does not remember him, and that Cliff seems overly familiar with Janet and Mark. Janet admits that she has become engaged to Cliff and has no plans to break it off, despite still having feelings for Rane. Rane stoically accepts this, but privately reacts by self-imposing the same institutionalized daily regime he had in captivity.
The town is intent on giving Rane a hero’s homecoming, and at a grand celebration, he is presented with a red Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars one for every day he was a captive plus one for luck – by the ‘Texas belle’ Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), who has worn his ID bracelet since he left. Shortly after, Cliff attempts to make peace with Rane; the latter, however, seems resigned to losing his wife, but he is determined not to lose his son and makes efforts to build a relationship.
Linda Forchet spots Rane in his new Cadillac at a gas station and invites him to have a drink at the bar where she works. She makes advances toward him, but Rane is emotionally distant and perhaps even unable to connect with anyone.
When Rane next returns home, four border outlaws are waiting for him: “The Texan” (James Best), “Automatic Slim” (Luke Askew) and a couple of Mexican thugs, “T Bird” (Charles Escamilla) and “Melio” (Pete Ortega). They demand the silver dollars and torture Rane to get them. Rane is totally unresponsive, having flashbacks to his torture in Hanoi as they beat him. The gang resorts to drastic measures and shoves Rane’s hand down a garbage disposal, mangling it. At this point Janet and Mark return, and are immediately taken hostage. Rane lies with a mangled arm on the kitchen floor while his son finds and hands over the silver dollars. The gang shoots all three of them, leaving them for dead. Rane survives but his wife and son do not.
Several weeks later, Rane is convalescing in a hospital where Linda and Vohden visit him separately. Vohden has signed on for another ten years in the Airborne Division, due to his uncertainty as to what else to do with his life. Although he gives no details to the police, Rane has ideas regarding the identities of his attackers and prepares to take vengeance. His first move upon discharge is to saw down a double-barreled shotgun and sharpen the prosthetic hook which has replaced his right hand.
Before leaving for Mexico, Rane visits the bar where Linda works and invites her to go with him. She leaves with him, having no idea she is accompanying him on a vendetta. He sends her into a seedy Mexican bar to look for “Fat Ed.” She is taken into a backroom where a sleazy lowlife named Lopez (James Victor) immediately begins to harass her. Rane comes to her rescue while also extracting some information. Linda now realizes Rane’s intention and though she is alarmed, continues to help. Linda is sent into another seedy bar in a nearby town, as before. Rane locates Automatic Slim and a vicious bar fight ensues; Rane only escapes by wounding Automatic Slim in the crotch with his hook hand.
Conducting his own investigation back in Texas, Cliff finds the sawn-off barrel of Rane’s shotgun and realizes Rane’s plan. Using his police contacts to trace Rane’s car, Cliff finds his way to the Mexican border town in which Rane encountered Lopez. Cliff is led to Lopez, and they scuffle. After Lopez leads Cliff on a foot-chase through a stockyard into an abandoned house, a gunfight ensues. Cliff shoots and kills Lopez and two other attackers before Automatic Slim sneaks in behind him, calls to him and shoots him as he turns to respond. As a wounded Cliff crawls toward his dropped weapon, Automatic Slim mercilessly shoots him again, killing him.
Linda and Rane begin to connect further while on the road, with Linda talking about her tomboy past, and Rane talking about things he liked before the war. In a motel room in El Paso, she tries to talk Rane out of revenge one last time. Despite his experiences in Hanoi and of losing his son and wife, Rane may not be as emotionally dead as he seems. Rane leaves a sleeping Linda behind in the motel (with a sizable sum of money), and despite her earlier insistence that she would call the police, she cannot bring herself to follow through, as she hangs up the phone when the police answer her call.
Rane, dressed in full uniform, goes to Vohden’s house. Vohden, emotionally distanced from his family, asks no questions and is dressed in his Army uniform and ready to go in an instant. Rane plans to attack the remaining members of the gang in a whorehouse. Vohden goes in first and picks up a prostitute named Candy (Cassie Yates). Once they are upstairs, Rane takes out a guard in the rear yard and goes in the back entrance. Rane signals to Vohden and kicks off a bloody, violent shootout. After surprising The Texan with a hooker, Rane declares “It’s your time, boy” before shooting him. T-Bird, Melio and several other men are dealt with likewise before the final standoff between Rane and Automatic Slim. Rane kills him, emotionlessly shooting him several times. Bloodied and wounded, Rane and Vohden, supporting each other, walk out of the brothel.
The film was originally written in 1973 for AIP, where Larry Gordon was head of production. Gordon took the script with him when he left for Columbia, and for a time Schrader was going to direct. However that fell through and the film was set up at 20th Century Fox. Schrader’s script was rewritten by Heywood Gould. The movie was shot in San Antonio, Texas in 31 days.
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Director John Flynn
How did critics and the public respond to Rolling Thunder when it was first released in 1977?
John Flynn: We almost got killed when we previewed Rolling Thunder in San Jose! People were shocked by the extreme violence, especially the scene where a hand is ground up in a garbage disposal unit.
Paul Schrader’s script was reworked by a very fine writer – Heywood Gould. Back then, they were priming William Devane to be a big movie star. He is a wonderful actor, but he never became a star. Tommy Lee Jones was sensational in this picture. Rolling Thunder was his breakthrough film. Linda Haynes was extraordinary. Today, she is a legal secretary in Florida. I saw her when I was shooting Scam there in ‘93.
We shot Rolling Thunder in San Antonio, Texas, in 31 days. We knew we were doing something fairly bold. The producer, Lawrence Gordon, told me to shoot the garbage disposal scene like open-heart surgery, make it as bloody as I possibly could. So I did. When we submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for a rating, we expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent movies in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating!
Fox wanted to cut out all the violence and release Rolling Thunder to 42nd Street theatres, so Larry Gordon took it to Sam Arkoff at American International Pictures. Arkoff bought it from Fox and released it almost uncut. He made one little trim in the garbage disposal scene.
William Devane (Charles Rane)
Rolling Thunder was one of those movies that blew the back of my head off the first time I saw it.
William Devane: Yeah, it was a trippy movie. They really blew it the way they tried to release it, wound up putting it right into the toilet. It was previewed in the wrong place, in San Jose. There were a lot of Mexican-Americans in the audience who, wrongly in my opinion, felt it was racist and they went nuts, setting fire to the seats of the theater. It panicked 20th Century Fox and they just dumped it.
How was Paul Schrader’s draft different from what Heywood Gould eventually wrote?
William Devane: A lot of it wasn’t accessible, and that’s what Heywood did with it. “You gotta learn to love it,” that kind of stuff was all Heywood. (Director) John Flynn was a big fan of John Sturges, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel and the French guys, like Jean-Pierre Melville. These guys made “pulp” movies, but they were actually much more if you read between the lines. John was Robert Wise’s first A.D. and knew his way around that room, but didn’t know how to play politics upstairs. If he had, he would’ve made a bunch more great pictures. You see, my job is to work with directors who view their job as being interested in what’s not being said. John was one of those guys.
And this is why Rolling Thunder is my favorite performance of yours. You have, maybe, 30 lines of dialogue in the entire 95 minute movie. Your performance is almost entirely internal.
William Devane: Yeah, that’s why it’s one of my favorites, too.
Your co-star was an unknown named Tommy Lee Jones. And he had even less dialogue than you. Could you see he was going places then?
William Devane: Yeah, Tommy was terrific. Going places is about business, though, and not acting. Tommy is all business. He knows what he’s doing. He’s another guy who understands material, very smart. We got along pretty good when we were there. When you look at that film, all those years ago, we’re in the same place again: we’ve got guys coming back from war who are trained to kill. They ain’t lookin’ to be a short order cook. They’re lookin’ to fuckin’ kill somebody, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. I thought Tommy really captured that whole aspect of his character.
Was it odd for you to carry a film like that?
William Devane: Yeah, you know, I never thought that way, so it wasn’t, like, a big deal. And the director [John Flynn], he hadn’t really directed a big feature, but he really knew what he wanted and what you should do and everything. So it was fun. The whole idea of shooting it is nothing. It’s what happens after, not letting them stick it in the closet, forcing them to release it. You know, they tried to do the same thing to Warren Beatty with Bonnie And Clyde. But Warren was hip enough and smart enough and knew how to put enough pressure on them to get them to release that picture. And I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t have any idea.
Do you find people still bring it up even now?
William Devane: Oh, yeah! Because they just released the DVD of it not that long ago. A new one, I should say. And Tommy and I did some of that stuff you do on DVDs, where you talk about it.
Linda Haynes (Linda Forchet)
Now we come to Rolling Thunder. Again, the one line of dialogue you say would be true for all your characters, “Why do I keep getting involved with crazy men?”
Linda Haynes: Yeah right. [laughter] I don’t know. I don’t know why they saw me that way and cast me accordingly. That worked. The idea is to work. I don’t know what it was but apparently that’s the way I was seen and what I took. And I was comfortable enough to play that. It’s like an old shoe I guess.
But anyways let’s talk about that film. Tell me what you remember about it.
Linda Haynes: Oh let’s see. Well we were in San Antonio I think for a couple months. Geez it’s tough to think back that far.
I know this is the one that is Tarantino’s favorite film and he even contacted you about it.
Linda Haynes: Well, I can believe that because when he contacted me about that I was married, and we were living between here and Florida and the Bahamas. I didn’t know who he was. I wasn’t particularly interested in watching movies. He wasn’t as big as he is now. And I figured, “Now why would I fly to California?” Number one he called and I had just awakened from a nap.
I really had finished with all that because my life was into something else. I wasn’t working in any law office at the time but we were commuting between Florida and the Bahamas. I was more interested in snorkeling and relaxing than I was in working. At that point I wasn’t very interested in it. If you were to call me today I’d have a different reaction altogether. But you do what you do and I’m glad he liked the film. I’m glad he liked my performance in it because again it was comfortable. We had a good time in that film as well. I remember Billy Devane saying, “Well, she should go with us to the end,” where they have that –
The massacre at the end.
Linda Haynes: He threw his two cents into that but they didn’t go for it so I was left at the motel room and he went on to do his thing there. I didn’t argue with anybody. I just did what they told me to do. I figured it’s their job to make these decisions – John Flynn and the writer and so on. So I just figured, “Whatever.”
What do you remember about Tommy Lee Jones?
Linda Haynes: Super nice guy. He’s super smart. My sister came to San Antonio so after working hours were over we were able to talk as friends, etc. These were really super nice normal people. He certainly got to be a colossal star. Well they all did – Billy Devane too. But I had chosen to go another way. I don’t know where I’d be if I continued, but anyway it was fun. It was fun doing that. It was fun. The scenes were fun to do.
By the way were you really that good of a shot in that scene?
Linda Haynes: I think I was ’cause I hit the mark, and I had never fired a shotgun before. So I may just be really talented in that. [laughter] Because I remember – I mean it was shooting blanks but I remember when I shot the gun it hit what I was looking to hit. And of course the kick on the shotgun gave me a good bruise. They must’ve covered it or something ’cause I had never shot anything like that before. But I guess I was a good aim. So that was fun.
Heywood Gould Co-Script Writer
How did you become involved with Rolling Thunder?
Heywood Gould: It’s 1977, and I’m living in a furnished room in a fleabag hotel, working as a bartender for 30 bucks a shift, writing articles for the underground press, hack books about camping, headaches, Swedish massage, group sex; porno novels at 10 bucks a page. I’ve already had my first novel, One Dead Debutante, published. I’ve written a few horror scripts for local producers. One was for a Texas guy with a long white beard and a ten-gallon hat who made movies for drive-ins. Another script was about a couple of cops in the South Bronx called Fort Apache, The Bronx. My rate is a thousand dollars per script, but I managed to wangle $1,250 for Fort Apache because I have to travel back and forth to the Bronx. I’m not married or in school or in the Army anymore, so I’m a happy guy. Unbeknownst to me, Bill Devane is reading my collected works. I get a call from an agent in Los Angeles. There’s a script that needs a rewrite. They’re sending me a ticket. I fly first class, and they put me up at the Beverly Hilton. The hotel is booked, so they give me a junior suite with unlimited room service. The cocktail waitress looks like Yvette Mimeux. I tell her I’m in town to do a movie. I get a nod and an uh-huh, because she’s heard this all before. I drink Martell VSOP and charge it to my room. She reconsiders. Hooray for Hollywood! The next day I have a meeting at Fox. The producer, Larry Gordon, is fast-talking, thickly-bearded, born in Yazoo, Mississippi, late of American International Pictures. The director, John Flynn, has the booze flush and weary sneer of a kindred spirit. Devane is hot. He’s just played J.F.K. on a big TV movie. “He’s not happy with the script,” Larry tells me, “and he thinks you can help it.” The script is by Paul Schrader, already famous for Taxi Driver. They tell me to read it and react. “The lead needs to be more sympathetic,” Gordon says. “We need better women.” “Who doesn’t?” I say. No laugh. This is a tough town. Later Flynn takes me down a long, quiet hallway with offices on both sides, lots of secretaries staring into space, invisible producers hollering orders. We go into the “script room,” where Fox has kept original copies of every script ever written for them. “Sometimes I come in here and just browse,” Flynn says. Poking around I find a shooting script of His Girl Friday, 206 pages. Another of Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. “Take ’em,” Flynn says. “They don’t care.” He then informs me that Schrader was supposed to direct but has quit the picture.
What was your initial reaction upon reading Schrader’s script?
Heywood Gould: I read the script that afternoon. I can’t remember how I reacted. Only that I had different ideas about the characters. There were a few added scenes that came to mind, and I felt it needed changes to some scenes. I remember I thought the portrayal of Johnny’s – the Tommy Lee Jones character – family was patronizing; they were shown as dumb rednecks. In general, I thought the characters seemed like symbols and not human beings. And there was no interesting woman.
By Schrader’s own admission, the William Devane character was a pretty unlikable person in that first draft. What can you tell me about that?
Heywood Gould: I remember thinking that the Rane character had no human dimension; he was something like a Brechtian construct to advance an ideological message, and I could understand why an actor wouldn’t want to play the part. He had no connection with his son. There was no sympathy for a guy who’d been tortured in a POW camp for seven years. No appreciation of the emotional alterations you would have to go through to survive. No insight into the kind of person he was before his ordeal. I remember the biggest arguments I had in the 1960s were about demonizing the warrior along with the war. From the orthodox left-wing point of view the soldiers were “proletarian” victims – not perpetrators and certainly not mercenaries. I always felt the Jane Fonda faction were intellectual snobs looking down on the soldiers. I think that’s how I responded to the script.
In what ways did racism manifest itself in the script?
Heywood Gould: I really don’t remember any overt racism. I know that Larry Gordon would have insisted on removing it. After all, you can’t root for a racist. Maybe I saw a later draft.
Quentin Tarantino has famously said that his favorite parts of Rolling Thunder were your contributions. What scenes featured your greatest contributions, and what were they?
Heywood Gould: I didn’t know Tarantino said that. I’m flattered. I pretty much put the whole script through the typewriter, changing stuff, adding lines, rewriting scenes, etc. I wrote the Charley/Cliff relationship pretty much from scratch – the rope scene, playing catch with the son… I wrote the Linda relationship all the way through. I wrote a scene in which she ties a knot in a cocktail cherry with her teeth. It made the released version but then inexplicably disappeared. I wrote the last part of the picture starting with Cliff going off in search of Charley to place them in the locations John Flynn had found – cattle pens, cafes, the brother, etc. The best scenes, as always, were written on the back of a menu while they are lighting the next set-up. I wrote the shooting scene with Linda and Charley like that, and a couple of speeches here and there when John said, “I need a line for this.”
Did you do any research on or interview any real-life P.O.W.s for Rolling Thunder? I ask because the “learn to love the rope” scene contains so much insight. When you see it, you think, “That’s got to be right. That must be the way it really is.”
Heywood Gould: I didn’t do any special research. The scene just bubbled up out of the murky depths of my psyche. The line “learn to love the rope” ultimately became the motto of the crew when the temperature went over 120° Fahrenheit during the shoot.
Did you write Johnny’s line, “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people”? There’s not much to that line, but it’s directness makes it brilliant. It’s easily one of my favorite movie lines.
Heywood Gould: I honestly don’t remember. I wrote the scene with the hooker, so I guess I wrote the line.
What are some your memories of the shoot?
Heywood Gould: The crew worked hard – partied harder – and were ready to go the next morning. We were staying at the Holiday Inn and making good use of the bar. There was a quartet that could play any kind of music – from country and western to bebop; a female vocalist who could sing any style, from Peggy Lee to Brenda Lee. A place called Bill’s served huge plates of barbecued brisket. I could never eat pastrami after that. After the first week, I noticed we had a discreet contingent of Texas Rangers hanging around to protect us from obstreperous locals, and they studiously ignored the strong herbal odors coming from the prop truck. We hired a high school marching band for the opening scene. They stood in full uniform in the heat for hours, doing take after take, for $10 a head – all cheerful and excited about being in a movie.
There was an all-night Mexican restaurant with cabrito and Dos Equis with waitresses who looked like Linda Darnell and a mariachi band in full regalia that serenaded us at two in the morning. An amiable old man in faded jeans and scuffed boots started hanging around, cadging drinks. One night he approached shyly and asked if we would come to his house for a barbecue. We didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He told us to start looking for his name when we got 20 miles out of town. We ultimately found his name, but it took us 10 more miles to get to his house. It turned out that he was one of the biggest ranchers in the area. He barbecued a whole steer and the fixin’s for us that day, and his daughter thanked us for being so “hospitable” to him. I caught a look of shrewd amusement in his eyes as we wandered around in awe. We went to a town called Bandera to hear a band called Arky Blue’s. Everybody was standing around the bar with side arms. A guy with two pearl-handled Colts pounded me on the back, “Whaddaya think of our local boys?” “Best music I ever heard,” I said.
James Best flew in to play the boss villain. He sized me up. “I studied with Stella Adler,” he told me. “I was one of Stella’s boys.” Later I overheard him asking John Flynn, “Can I change some of his shit?” But he never did change a word. In the bar of the Holiday Inn one night, one of the local stunt men said he had seen Roy Rogers’s riding double. The Hollywood stunt guys took this as unpardonable blasphemy and demanded a retraction. They knocked on my door. “We’re choosin’ up sides in the parking lot,” they said. Unfamiliar with the lingo, I thought they were organizing a ballgame so I said, “I’m in.” I went downstairs and found myself in the middle of a serious brawl. The next day, the stunt guys came over to me and said, “Hey, you New York writers can really handle yourselves.” To this day that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in this business.
What was John Flynn like, and what are your thoughts on him as a director?
Heywood Gould: If John Flynn had been born 30 years earlier, he would have directed 30 more films and there would be John Flynn festivals all over the noir circuit. He was always prepared, and he always knew what he wanted. And he could back it up with quotes from his encyclopedic knowledge of films. He’d say, “This is a Kurosawa 150,” or “Joe Macdonald used the key light like this in such and such film.” The last part of the picture, from Cliff’s search for Charley to the final shootout in the brothel, is pure cinema at its best. John and I later became neighbors when I moved out west, which in Los Angeles meant we were only a half hour’s drive from one another. We cooked up a lot of movie ideas, but we never got past the pitch stage. He spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get something going and he never gave up hope.
I’ve heard rumors that William Devane and Linda Haynes didn’t get along and even argued on set. Do you have any memories of that?
Heywood Gould: Bill Devane was the motor. The picture wouldn’t have been made without him. He had script approval, which was why I was hired. He had cast approval and read with all the auditioning actors, so I’m sure he approved Linda Haynes. Linda is perfect in the role. We could see how great she was in the dailies, and her performance didn’t have to be punched up in the editing room. Bill was tough and protected his character, but he never pulled the star act. He knew how he wanted to play the role, and he turned out to be right. Tension on a set is good; it shows that the actors care. In the end, everything Bill and Linda did was for the good of the picture.
The film disappeared for a while. Over the past few years, however, it’s been making a comeback as legions of new fans have discovered the film. Has the rediscovery and newfound popularity of Rolling Thunder surprised you?
Heywood Gould: I saw the movie the week it was released on a cold, rainy night in a theater on 42nd Street. Homeless guys were washing their socks in the bathroom; hookers were doing business in the balcony; a bag lady was having an animated conversation – with herself. But everybody stopped what they were doing to watch the movie. And a guy screamed, “Kill all them motherfuckers,” when the shootout began. So I knew we had a hit.
Paul Schrader Story/ Script Writer
What was the story with Rolling Thunder?
Paul Schrader: I can tell you what I had in mind, but that’s not the film you saw.
What did you have in mind? The script was much discussed.
Paul Schrader: I had in mind a script about a man, a POW who was shot down on one of his first missions in Vietnam. He comes back a hero, but he feels guilty about being a hero because he never killed anybody. He gets a chance to become a hero in that he is very much a racist and his hatred of the Vietcong is displaced by racism against Mexican Americans. He’s from the Texas border area, and so his DMZ becomes the border: he crosses over it, and he kills a lot of people with different color skins. Now the filmmakers, and particularly the actor, I am told, were very queasy and unwilling to play a racist character.
Paul Schrader: Devane. And in making the character more normal, they no longer had a movie about a racist, but a racist movie. There’s a distinction. What they did would have been equivalent to giving Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver a dog. You take away his sickness, you take away the meaning from the movie. You then had a sick movie about a normal person rather than a sane movie about a sick person.
A story that’s often repeated is that Twentieth couldn’t release it because of a violent scene featuring a hand in a garbage disposal.
Paul Schrader: Well, not that Twentieth couldn’t-Twentieth wouldn’t. Twentieth had problems with its image releasing this picture. They sold it to AIP. Twentieth got every dime out of the picture they had in it. They didn’t take a loss at all. They just preferred to have someone else release it. That garbage disposal scene stayed in the picture. It’s just that Twentieth Century Fox didn’t care to take the rap that the film was probably going to get. But AIP didn’t give a fuck. You can’t rap AIP.
The story I heard is that some preview audiences reacted negatively to the violence.
Paul Schrader: They had preview audiences that just about beat everybody up from what I hear. But they also showed in that preview a very graphic version of the film, to see what the reaction was. Well, they got the reaction. They subsequently previewed it in the released version and got a more favorable reaction.
How far did you go with that film?
Paul Schrader: I met the director once for about five minutes and never met Devane. Do you mean how far would I have gone with it?
Paul Schrader: I was going to direct Rolling Thunder at one point. I had cast it, scouted locations, budgeted it. I was all set to go at Columbia. Well, I sold it originally to AIP. Larry Gordon was at AIP, and he wanted to do it. He moved over to Columbia. AIP decided not to do it. Gordon bought it from AIP. The head of Columbia had given me permission to make a first film as a director, and I was going to star Richard Jordan. Larry, strangely enough, backed out of it as producer because it was cross-collateralized with a film he had just finished called Hard Times, which he thought he was going to make a lot of money on. He didn’t want any potential loss on Rolling Thunder to eat into the profits of Hard Times. He went to Columbia and asked that they be uncrossed. Columbia says, “Why do we make a deal with you to cross your pictures if you want to uncross the first one?” He subsequently fell out with the people at Columbia and moved his whole deal over to Twentieth. (Hard Times, by the way, did not make the money that he had anticipated.) Well, then Twentieth decided to make Rolling Thunder, but without me. And with Devane. They made it, they financed it, and then they decided not to release it–they ended up selling it back to AIP to release it, which is who I sold the script to in the first place.
It sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine.
Paul Schrader: Every film has a similar story but not all are as pristine in their circularity. Every film has a serpentine progress. Nothing is simple or direct. It falls in and out of many hands.
San Antone Sung by Denny Brooks Written by Barry De Vorzon (uncredited)
Rolling Thunder was released on October 14, 1977 in United States and it was also released in more 7 countries. Upon release, the film received generally positive reviews from critics. The film received praise for its action sequences, atmosphere, direction, music and cast performances, however, it was criticized for its pace and violent climax. In addition to its critical success, the film was also a box office success with an estimated revenue of $130 million against its $5 million production budget. Flynn says American International Pictures “distributed it, as is, without re-cutting it. It made them a fortune.”
For reasons still not convincingly stated, the film was released in Spain in 1982 as El expreso de Corea (“The Korean Express”), sometimes spelled in the media with a hyphen (ex-preso), which translates as “The former prisoner [literally, convict] from Korea”. A Korean War setting was included as well in the Spanish dubbing instead of the original Vietnam War scenario. A possible reason could be the title’s slight similarity with the hugely successful El expreso de medianoche (Midnight Express), which was released earlier in Spain. However, the replacement of Vietnam by Korea is still left unexplained even more so considering the fact that the time span of the Korean War, 1950–1953, conflicts with the alleged 7-year stay as POWs in the camp and the actual 1973 setting of the film.
The film was originally produced and scheduled for release by Twentieth Century-Fox. The studio previewed it in San Jose in an audience who had just watched the Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer.
Director John Flynn later explained “The first 20 minutes of the film were placid by design Devane’s homecoming, reunited with his family. Then violence overtakes this family. In the space of two minutes, Devane’s hand is ground off, and his wife and son are shot dead before his eyes.”
The preview audience did not react well to this change. In his Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman characterized this as “the most violent sneak reaction of recent years… the audience actually got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present among them.”.
“The lobby looked like Guadalcanal,” recalled producer Larry Gordon. “Which, by the way, is a salesman’s dream.”
Flynn says Twentieth Century-Fox screened the film for psychiatrists in an attempt to learn what it was that so disturbed the audience. Recalls Flynn: “They determined that it was like a symbolic castration. So, seeing it incited a (negative) reaction akin to the sneak of the original Exorcist… Home is supposedly the place where everyone feels safest. When people are reminded that the home is vulnerable, which we all know it is, that’s disturbing.”
Flynn says, “There were several discussions about what Fox should do with Rolling Thunder cut it, re-edit it or what.” Fox insisted on making cuts to the film but Gordon refused and he took the movie to AIP to distribute.
William Devane later recalled: It probably would’ve made a big difference if they’d actually released it properly. But when they tested it… the Mexicans set the theater on fire! They were really, really, really down on it. So then the studio backed way off, and it never got the release it would’ve if they’d really jumped on it and supported it. But I didn’t understand to operate in those days. I still don’t know how to operate.
Directed – John Flynn
Produced – Norman T. Herman
Written – Paul Schrader
Tommy Lee Jones
Barry De Vorzon