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It's hard to describe the visceral jolt this film gives to anyone brought up
in the South or to anyone who appreciates hot rods.
Unfortunately, my dad died shortly before this film came out or it would have been his favorite film. Raised in a poor sharecropper's family in Clay County, Kentucky, during the Depression, he and his brothers drove souped-up "tankers" running moon throughout Ky, Tenn and Virginia before and after they served in combat in WW2 and Korea. From their description of those rowdy days, THUNDER ROAD is as brutally accurate as can be. Not only were the dreaded T-Men a major hazard, with their brutal tactics, but the various families that cooked the "moon" and distributed it often had blood feuds that were resurrected or exacerbated by their competition for the illegal whisky business. The longest running feud in US history, the century-long White-Baker Feud (also called the Clay County Wars) was resurrected due to the two clans' competition in tanking the moon throughout Appalachia.
Inherently a sad but realistic work, Mitchum's excellent performance and an honest, understated script give us a snapshot of an American way of life that few outside of the rural South could ever comprehend. The culture of individualism and freedom from Federal oppression is much less today, but still exists. I believe the reason this film is such a huge cult film in the South is that it reminds us that not too long ago many of our ancestors were still willing to take on the tyrant face to face. We are, alas, just a pale copy of those who went before.
Truly one of the most under-appreciated films of the 50s, due in no small part to the overwhelmingly Yankee composition of the critics' circles. They couldn't possibly understand the film. It's a Southern thing.
Filmed in 1957, and sent to theaters in 1958, it had the 'Rods' of the
day. This was a film of youth, and wild rebels. In some ways, you had
to be born then to understand it. I saw it for the first time at the
Flying Cloud Drive-In. Siting in a 1951 Ford Custom with a full race
flat head engine, and my best girl at my side. Three duces, Lakers, and
overdrive trans. The car, not her. To this day I can close my eyes and
hear the the high pitch voice singing the theme song. "Let me tell the
story, I can tell it well, 'bout the whipperwill that drove...", well
you know the song if you have seen the movie.
Imagine a drive-in filled with 'Rods'. On the screen you see a 50 Ford, with its lights out, driving down a dark country road. A 57 Chev pulls out from a hiding spot and gives chase. All heck lets loose, not on the screen, but in the drive-in. Fifty 'Rods' rev their 'Mills' with the Lakers open. Flames shoot from the pipes, and the noise pounds in your guts. Outside the drive-in 20 cops are waiting for the movie to end, and play time to start. Have this picture in your mind? That's the way it was back then. The movie showed a 50 Ford front clip on a 51 Ford. The inside view of the car shows a 51 dash. I spotted that when I first viewed the movie. The 57 Ford, that Bob drove later in the movie, had a 312 supercharged engine. I know that engine well. I had to get one after I saw the movie. Oh, and the car to go with it. Bootleging is not a southern exclusive. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, and we had 'shiners, and 'runners here. Minnesota 13 was the 'shine of the Volstead Days. Sorry, I forgot what this is all about, and no, I will not say if I did any of that. All my friends knew the song by heart, and we would sing it all the time. Bad guys drove Chev (Feds) and the good guys (Runners) drove Fords.
Simple, plain, and all 1950's. Lots of bad acting. Lots of continuity errors. Lots of hot cars. Lots of great action shots. A great title song. Look, if you were not born then, you have to see what Grandpa and Grandma made out to when they were young. No Drive-ins are around today. My 2002 Thunderbird has computers that limit my speed. I still know all the words to the song. I can still close my eyes and hear the roar of the 'mills', and see the flames from the Lakers, today. I still wish it was 'way back then', and 20 cops were waiting to play. "And when his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road"
THUNDER ROAD opens with a bang! A bumper snatcher (Government car that rips back bumpers off the cars they chase) grabs the plate off the hot rod belonging to the most sought after moonshiner in the business, Lucas Doolin. Doolin is probably the coolest Robert Mitchum performance. With his sleepy eyes, he slaps around the rival moonshiners, basically tells the ATF boys they'll never get him, tries to keep his younger brother (Played by Mitchum's 17 year old son, Jim.) away from the moon business. The film has a real charm to it, basically because the film never sneers at the hillbilly culture it depicts. Reportingly, the drive in classic of the 1960's, and I can see why. Recommended viewing.
If ever there was a film that combined all the drama of hotrod cars, moonshine runners, romance and the family ties and traditions of Appalachia, this one's it. Robert Mitchum virtually owned this entire film. He wrote the story based on an actual incident that occurred just outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Tennessee state police confirm that in about 1953, a moonshine runner crashed his "moonrunner" car at a place called Reardon, which is now part of the city, and died. How Mitcum found the story, we may never know. Mitchum also helped write the lead song "Thunder Road" and the second song in the movie, "Whipporwill." He also recorded the title song and it was high on the pop charts for months. And, he cast his own son as his brother in the movie. Though technically far from perfect (the cars seem to change styles during the chase scenes), and the acting in places leaves a LOT to be desired, old movie theater operators will tell you they can still fill all their seats with a double bill of "Thunder Road" and "Rebel Without A Cause." I'll certainly be there every chance I get.
Thunder Road is an outstanding film and occupies an interesting place in Mitchum's evolution as an actor. It is a compelling and believable look at the moonshine-running culture of the Appalachian Mountains, pitting moonshiners not only against Alcohol, Tax, and Firearms (ATF) agents and state authorities but, as well, against organized crime seeking to control the trade for their own ends. Mitchum is thoroughly believable in the kind of role--a rural, Scots-Irish mountaineer--that many others have tried and failed at. The film never descends into parody or sneering elitism. The moonshiners and the authorities are both shown as individuals of good will, seeking to do their duty as they see it, and devoted to values that are basically decent and trustworthy. The mobsters are not cardboard cutouts or over-the-top villains, and this, somehow, adds to their menace. At the time he did this film, Mitchum was already well-established, with Night of the Hunter behind him, and, as well, his most recent film The Enemy Below, in which he played a Navy Captain confronting shrewd U-boat skipper in a battle of wits. After these kind of films, one might wonder why he would take this role--but I think it is because he saw that it offered some real-challenge, a role that forced him to play a gritty character in an unusual setting. Mitchum is shown as a man of great complexity--trying to encourage his younger brother to get involved with something other than fast cars and moonshine, recommending that he join the service and get involved with advanced aviation technology. His girlfriend, a roadhouse singer, is one of the most sympathetic heroines of the 50's late-film noir genre. The chase sequences are riveting--VERY well done by the standards of the time, and in many ways Thunder Road offers a rural companion piece to Bill Hickman and Steve McQueen's great chase sequence in Bullitt. This is a film to be savored, particularly by anyone who has driven through twisting Appalachian mountain roads at night, reflecting on the tough, decent, and hard-scrabble folk in that part of America.
I was 14 when I first viewed "Thunder Road" at a local drive In in North Georgia. It was in June 1958 after the movie was released in May of that year. The movie was an immediate smash hit with viewers that night, many of whom were in the "whiskey" business and who had taken the night off to see the film. After the show the exit from the drive in was blackened by the burning rubber left by many of the patrons leaving the premises, several of whom owned "whiskey cars" of equal or greater horsepower than those in the film. Since that night I have seen the movie many times and it always brings back great memories of the era. 2007 will be the 50th anniversary of the filming of the movie and 2008 will be the anniversary of its release date. Wouldn't it be interesting if someone or some company put together a 50th Anniversary Thunder Road event like the recreation of the cars in the movie along with special appearances at regional car shows, complete with car magazine articles and perhaps even a road test of the vintage autos. The re-release of the DVD to include the out takes would also be popular. Who knows what MGM and NASCAR could do with a team effort? WHB
This movie has believable action. You can visualize yourself racing high-powered cars down country back roads. It has love--love of a young girl for an older man, and love of a man for a woman unlike anyone he ever knew as a young man. It has hate--hate for people who pretend to care, but don't, and hate for people bereft of any kindness. It has jealousy of someone who is losing the girl he wants to another man. It shows family love of backwoods people, people who are looked down upon by most others but actually have more decency than most people. It has sadness of life when things don't turn out the way they should. Though a relatively short movie, you come away with the feeling that you knew all of these people. Don't miss it. In the movie, Robert Mitchum plays a Korean war vet who has come back home to find he must fight for his way of life. He is a backwoodsman who delivers moonshine in tankers--fast modified automobiles. His people, backwoods people, eke out a living selling it. But the U.S. government wants him stopped because no federal taxes are paid on moonshine. At the same time, organized crime, selling unlicensed liquor themselves, wants his deliveries stopped and will kill to stop him. Mitchum's character sees little difference between the government and organized crime. He must also fight his brother who also wants to become a tanker driver, a profession Mitchum sees as increasingly dangerous, and fight an envious fellow tanker driver. Mitchum had asked Elvis Presley to play his brother in the movie. Presley was interested but followed Col. Parker's advice and Presley turned the role down. Had Presley accepted, he would have been perfect for the role.
From the opening scene of a 1950 Ford coupe racing along a mountain road to the closing crash of a 1957 Ford - yes that must have been the product placement company, along with the tobacco industry, but the cops get around in great 1957 Chevy Bel Airs - this movie has plenty of involving drama centred around a guy who acts as a transporter for moonshiners. The female characters and the acting are weak but handsome Robert Mitchum keeps it all together in between the action sequences. Technically it ain't too bad, but there are obvious continuity problems. One scene between the younger brother and a law enforcer starts out and ends on location but there are a couple of minutes of dialog that are obviously filmed in the studio - even in 1957 this surely could have been done a little better.
Someone one here labeled this film "hillybilly film noir." I think
that's a great description of this movie. This is about the good 'ole
boys racing their souped- up '50s Fords around country roads, running
moonshine and trying to evade both cops and gangsters. In fact, I wish
they had more of those chase scenes because, even with primitive
special-effects, they were fun to watch. The ending chase would have
been longer, if I had my way.
Mitchum is fun to watch in here, too. He just looked like a rugged guy, a "man's man," as they say. His kid brother Jim made his film debut in here and wasn't bad for a beginner. He and another beginner, singer Keely Smith, are a bit wooden but passable as actors. Keely also had an interesting face.
I think this is one of those films that gets better with each viewing. Highly recommended.
Arthur Ripley directs this cult classic crime/Noir. War vet Robert Mitchum
returns home to ramrod the family moonshine business. This hard headed
bootlegger takes on the Feds and the Mob while burning the roads in his
whiskey laden hot rods. If that is not enough, he must keep his young
brother(James Mitchum)from moving up from mechanic to driver in the family
business and then there is the romancing of a Memphis chanteuse(Keely
Smith). Also in the cast are Gene Barry, Sandra Knight and Jacques Aubuchon.
Bob Mitchum produces, and takes partial writing credit plus writes songs for
this evocative glimpse of southern culture. Mitchum also oversees his
younger brother's film debut.
NOTE: It is said that Elvis Presley enjoyed this movie so much he memorized bad Bob's lines of the script.
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