Reeling Backward: Thunder Road (1958)
Robert Mitchum starred in, produced and wrote the story for this cult hit about a stampeding moonshine driver, and even got a hit song out of it.
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“Thunder Road” was not a hit at the time of its release, a B-picture that was a pet project of Robert Mitchum, then stuck in a bit of a lull in his storied career. He produced it, part of a five-picture deal with United Artists, and came up with the story, reportedly based on the spectacular real-life death of a reckless Tennessee moonshine driver.
The picture’s cult status continued to grow and grow, and it was a drive-in theater favorite well into the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen says he got the idea for his seminal song of the same name from seeing a poster for the movie, though he claims not to have actually seen it. (Sure, Bruce.)
Its high-octane mix of high-speed car chases, crashes, swooning gals and Mitchum’s standard alpha male strutting are indeed memorable.
Director Arthur Ripley was a journeyman filmmaker and screenwriter who got his start as a vaudeville gag writer, later seguing into silent films. “Thunder Road” was actually his last feature film, passing away a few years later. Rumors have long persisted that Mitchum actually directed much of the movie.
James Atlee Phillips and Walter Wise penned the script. They brought a certain mountain ridge poetry to the dialogue, which Mitchum swills around like a tall glass of the still whiskey his character, Lucas “Luke” Doolin, drives from the hollers into ‘big cities’ like Knoxville, Asheville and Memphis.
Mitchum even got a hit record out of it, co-writing with Jack Marshall the film’s theme song, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.” Mitchum’s vocal version, a hard-edged country-rock ode to Luke, actually charted on Billboard’s Top 100 for a total of 21 weeks. Though oddly, the version that actually plays in the film, sung by Randy Sparks, is slower and softer, with toned-down lyrics (“whippoorwill, whippoorwill!”). I much prefer Mitchum’s.
The story is a straightforward crimes-and-coppers affair. The “revenuers” — a task force from the U.S. Treasury Department — are chasing Luke and his fellows with renewed vigor and a crack agent in charge, Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Unlike Prohibition-era stories of similar ilk, liquor wasn’t illegal but not paying taxes on it was.
Meanwhile, a big-city crime boss, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), has been roping all the moonshine still operators in a cross-state area into working for him, and is trying to strong-arm the Doolins and others in Harlan County, Ky., into the fold. Luke’s father, Vernon (Trevor Bardette), convinces the other moonshiners to stand up to him.
It’s all pointing to a hell-raising confrontation between Luke, Kogan and Barrett — though, interestingly, they share very little screen time together, and never as a threesome.
Elvis Presley was originally slated to star as Luke’s kid brother Vernon, but Colonel Tom Parker reportedly demanded a paycheck larger than the entire budget of the picture. So Mitchum cast his own teen son, James, in the role. Vernon is supposed to be an ace mechanic who’s still in high school, constantly pestering his big brother to take him on runs. But Luke has sworn he’ll never allow Vernon to go into the moonshine business.
Despite the 23-year age difference between the Mitchums, they are passably convincing as siblings. I’m guessing Luke, who’s a Korean War hero, is supposed to be about a decade younger than the elder Mitchum’s actual age of 41. Younger son Christopher also has a cameo as a washboard player.
Sandra Knight plays Roxanna “Roxy” Ledbetter, who is madly in love with Luke as the top driver around. He flirts with her and calls her “pretty girl,” rather than her actual name, but tries to steer her toward Vernon’s arms. Knight was Jack Nicholson’s first wife and retired from acting while still in her mid-20s.
Meanwhile, Luke is secretly carrying on an affair with Francie (jazz singer Keely Smith), a exotic nightclub crooner in one of his regular stops.
In Harlan, Luke is admired for his skills as a wheel man — he’s never been caught and still has a clean record — but is also begrudged. The old fathers who work the stills think he’s bringing the federal heat down on them due to his daring ways, while the sons who are fellow drivers resent him as the top dog.
Jed Moultrie (Mitchell Ryan), the second-best moonshiner around who pines to settle down with Roxy, grumbles that he always knows when Luke is coming because of the loud rumbling of his tailpipes. Luke and Vernon favor Fords and soup up the V-8 “mills” in the family garage.
As you might guess, “Thunder Road” has become a favorite of gearheads. Luke’s first car is a 1950 Ford “Tudor” coupe, an inexpensive model that the Doolins have strapped a three-carburetor intake onto. He winds up selling it to Jed and replaces it with a higher-end 1957 Fairlane 500. We also see a 1940 De Luxe in the background at the Doolins’ place, a favorite among hot-rodders.
I take pride in identifying the old cars in movies, and anything I can’t puzzle out myself I turn to the indispensable Internet Movie Cars Database.
By modern standards the car chases aren’t terribly impressive; a final showdown with Kogan’s chief henchman, Lucky (Peter Hornsby), is notable for the sounds of their cars trading paint as they try to force each other off the road but little visual depiction. There are a couple of good crashes as vehicles go careening off the ridge roads.
Some of the modifications the moonshiners make to their cars are pretty neat. Rather than carrying the liquor in breakable bottles, they actually have a reserve tank built into the trunk that can hold 250 gallons, and even have emergency dump valves in case capture by the law seems imminent.
As we see in the rip-roaring opening chase scene, the feds have come up with a “bumper locking” device so they can ram a suspected car from behind and latch onto them so they can’t get away. Luke and Vernon do them one better, making the rear bumper detachable with the push of a button.
There’s actually a weird moment in this first chase where Luke intentionally flips his car over so he can quickly head off in the opposite direction, leaving the Treasury men in his dust. Not only is this logistically improbable — wouldn’t his special booze tank rupture? — but in the very next shot there is no damage to his Ford.
Of course, in the end Luke buys it, as he must in Production Code-era standards where all lawbreakers, even those abiding by a code of honor, must meet their comeuppance in the end. Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 65 years.
I can see why “Thunder Road” has become a cult classic, one whose cultural influence has far outstripped its modest production values. You’ve got Robert Mitchum giving the finger to both lawmen and big-city creeps, with every female in sight falling for him and every male acquiescing to his BDE. Throw in some screaming engines and you’ve got cinematic horsepower, baby.