In the book "Schrader On Schrader" Paul Schrader who co-wrote the movie complains how the studio completely twisted his original version of the story. He wrote it as a critique of US involvement in Vietnam War and fascistic and racist attitudes in America. Rane was originally written as white trash racist with many similarities to Schrader's more famous character Travis Bickle (the main character of Taxi Driver (1976)). In this version, Rane becomes a war hero without ever having fired a gun, and comes home to confront the Texas Mexican community. Rane's racist upbringing and hatred that grew in him in Vietnam slowly come out. This version ends with Rane's indiscriminate slaughter of Mexicans which was meant as a metaphor for Vietnam. Schrader concludes with a claim that he basically wrote a film about fascism and the studio made a fascist film.
Quentin Tarantino named his distributing company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, after this film. Rolling Thunder Pictures released B-movies, cult classics, independent films, exploitation movies, and foreign films. The company went under due to poor sales.
James Best initially turned down playing the role of the Texan because he objected to the profanity in the script. However, Best eventually agreed to play the part after he learned that both William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones were attached to the movie. Moreover, Best put ice cubes under his cowboy hat to convey that his character was always sweating.
The film was originally produced and scheduled for release by Twentieth Century-Fox; it was prominently featured in their 1977 exhibitors' guide. However, the studio brass were greatly disturbed by the violence in the finished film, and the decision was made to sell it off to American International Pictures.
In his 1982 book 'Adventures in the Screen Trade,' William Goldman called an advance screening of this movie "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 famous scene where Rane's hand is put into garbage disposal was originally lot more graphic. There was originally shot of his hand getting destroyed. Scene was filmed with fake hand and lamb shank which made it look very realistic. When movie was previewed, audience members reacted very strongly on that scene. According to writer Heywood Gould; "One woman fainted, another person ran into the lobby and demanded it's money back, and another guy was so freaked out that he entered in his car on parking lot and crashed into another car". After that preview, shot of Rane's hand inside disposal was cut out from the movie.
The filmmakers were told by producers to make the scene where the criminals torture Rane as bloody as "open heart surgery", with his hand being shown being mangled and ripped up with a huge amount of gore. They actually expected the MPAA to demand edits and were prepared to appeal a potential X rating, but to their surprise the ratings board gave the film an R rating and did not make any requests for changes. The torture scene was wrongly reported to have been edited under MPAA pressure (a lot of gore and focus on the torn-apart hand was removed from the final cut), when it was actually edited because preview audiences were horrified and sickened by the images and submitted comment cards saying that they would never recommend a movie with a scene like that to their friends or families.