We continue dumpster-diving through San Antonio’s forgotten cinematic past to find another all-time cult classic that showcases the city — Rolling Thunder. There are a lot of big names attached to this film: Local hero Tommy Lee Jones appears in one of his first supporting roles; Paul Schrader, screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s two best films, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, wrote the script; and Frank P. Keller, who won the 1968 Best Film Editing Oscar for his work on Steve McQueen’s best film, Bullit, edited. Quentin Tarantino loved the film so much that he named his DVD distribution company in honor of it. But other than film historians like Tarantino, most people don’t know much about it. Why is that?
Perhaps because the premise is too awesome. Rolling Thunder is a grim revenge story about a Vietnam war hero who returns home to San Antonio, is tortured by some crazy hillbillies looking for his gold (led by James Best, the actor who played Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on television’s Dukes of Hazzard), gets a prosthetic hook for an arm after the hillbillies stick his hand down a garbage disposal, and goes on a rampage.
The hook-for-an-arm is visually stunning and emotionally disturbing, but not without precedent. In some ways Rolling Thunder is a B-movie re-imagination of a previous war film, the seven-time Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives, which is about a World War II veteran who returns home with two prosthetic hooks. Whereas The Best Years of Our Lives goes for subtlety and personal introspection, Rolling Thunder goes for a shotgun blast to the groin. Different motivations.
Rolling Thunder is a dark film and shares some similarities to Taxi Driver, another Schrader script about the problems of a Vietnam war vet. Whereas Taxi Driver is a milestone in the American New Wave because of DeNiro’s performance and Scorsese’s directorial vision, Rolling Thunder never seeks to rise above its B-movie status, though this is one of the first films to explore the tortured psyche of the Vietnam vet. The film is directed with unwavering seriousness, and the film becomes delirious and occasionally dips into unintentional comedy as a result, which might explain its popularity with film geeks. The movie is an enigma that operates on a variety of levels, with the ability to intrigue, entertain, disturb, and amuse depending on one’s perspective.
Last summer I watched a retrospective of 1970s B movies at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. They screened a film print of Rolling Thunder. Maybe the SA Film Commission would like to help me organize a retrospective screening back here in San Antonio. Tommy Lee Jones already lives here; Tarantino has visited before (I saw his autographed photo at Rolando’s Super Taco over on Hildebrand). Yeah, it’s a bummer that more films aren’t shot here, but nothing wrong with celebrating our weird history. A screening with Jones, Schrader, and Tarantino in attendance — somebody get on that. •