Wednesday, November 24, 2010

THUNDER ROAD (1958): Moonshining and Individualism

Thunder Road, which was first released to the theatres in 1958, was one of those pet projects by a major network star.  Robert Mitchum, wrote the story Thunder Road, was the executive producer of the movie, played its lead character, and even wrote the theme song for the film.  Thunder Road is a story about rebellion, and the defying of the powers that be.
Robert Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a bootlegger, recently back to the states from the Korean War, who outdrives and outfights his rivals and the feds while engaged in running moonshine throughout the Harlan County area in Tennessee.  James Mitchum (Robert’s actual son) plays Robin Doolin, the younger brother of Luke. Robin idolizes Luke to such a degree that he wants to be just like him – despite the fact that Luke is risking his life every night he’s out on the road.  Many of those also engaged in bootlegging in the county (outside of Luke’s immediate family including his mother and father) are envious of Luke.  Luke’s success has brought the attention of the feds and the mob down upon the county.  Many blame Luke’s antics for their inability to any longer make a living off of the moonshining business.  Luke also has the attention of the beautiful local girl, Rozanna (Sandra Knight).  When Luke’s not ignoring her (he only has eyes for the worldly singer, Francie Wymore, played by Keely Smith), he treats Rozanna like a kid sister who is better left at home with her parents.  Even so, the attention that Rozanna dotes upon Luke makes every other young man in the county jealous.
A new FBI agent has been assigned to the county by the name of Barrett (Gene Berry).  Barrett is not so much interested at catching Luke as he is in putting away Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), the gangster who does business out of Memphis.  Kogan wants to take over the entire bootlegging industry for Harlan County, but Luke’s success is preventing this from occurring.  While other moonshiners merely resent Luke’s dominant share of the business in the county, Kogan wants it all for himself, even if it means having people killed.  However, Kogan appreciates a good thing when he sees it.  Kogan offers Luke a job as a driver with his organization, though not understanding that Luke is a one-man show.  Luke shows his appreciation for Kogan’s offer by bludgeoning him.  Luke has now made a real enemy.  From this point forward, Luke gets in a number of scuffles with Kogan’s henchmen.  When Kogan kills a treasury man, Barrett then tries to lure Luke over to his side.  However, Luke is not to be taken in.  Luke is not interested in cooperating with anyone.  Because Kogan tried to trick Robin into joining his organization, Luke becomes enraged and tries to take personal revenge.  But Luke’s one last run is a disaster. Kogan’s men place a spike strip upon the road causing all four tires of Luke’s car to puncture.  Luke’s car then rolls several times and Luke is killed.  Luke’s death, though, does give the feds the ammunition to arrest Kogan.  And so Robin and Rozanna sit out on the porch and wait while the hearse brings the body of Luke back home.
When understanding something about Mitchum’s background, one understands why this movie had such an appeal for him.  Mitchum’s father was killed while working on the railroad.  Mitchum was then later expelled from school.  After that, he lived in the slums of New York, subsisted on wages he received as a ditch digger and semi-professional boxer, and for a time worked on a chain gang.  He made his way to California and worked for years as a stagehand and was given a few parts in movies.  After finally impressing his peers with roles in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, The Story of G.I. Joe, Out of the Past, and my personal favorite, Blood on the Moon, it appeared as if his troubles were over.  However, in 1949 at the age of 32, Mitchum was convicted for possessing marijuana.  No longer carrying the penalty it did back then, this arrest could well have ended his career.  Fortunately for Mitchum, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office decided to drop all charges, but Mitchum’s reputation was tainted.  When Mitchum died exactly one day before Jimmy Stewart in 1997, the marijuana bust was used to contrast Mitchum’s character with that of the more “wholesome” Stewart.
Mitchum’s career did not end with his arrest, however.  He went onto play two of the greatest villains in movie history in Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter.  He played the soldier or officer in several films during the 1960s.  More telling was the role he played in Sundowners where he’s the free spirit forced to settle down because of family circumstances.  Mitchum, himself, became more sedate in his roles as he grew older, and the rebellious spirit that so marked his younger years began to disappear.  In his last years, he did cameos in Scrooged and the remake of Cape Fear - as he was no longer the leading man.  It was only as a younger man that he would ever have dreamed up a project like Thunder Road.
Thunder Road was still extremely popular in the drive-in theatres down south some twenty-five years after the movie was released.  Apparently, it resonated well with males in their twenties or even thirties who badly wished they could emulate the leading man.  Mitchum brought in Arthur Ripley, an outsider in Hollywood, to direct the movie.  Ripley’s task was to keep a quick pace to the movie and to keep Mitchum from becoming too fanatical about the entire filming project.  Thunder Road certainly suffers from a lack of funds that would have given the film a more polished look, and often the slang sounds as contrived and hokey as it did in the movie The Wild One starring Marlon Brando.  Thunder Road is better than the many movies that imitated it, however, because Mitchum is so believable in his role.  Mitchum, as he did in almost all of his best films, has a screen presence.  And Aubuchon as Kogan, Trevor Bardette as Vernon Doolin (Luke’s father), Frances Koon as Sarah Doolin (Luke’s mother), Sandra Knight as Rozanna, and especially James Mitchum as Robin make up an adequate supporting cast.  (A number of the other characters probably had no acting experience whatsoever.)   And, allegedly, Mitchum had been working on getting the film made for a number of years.  Mitchum actually was given Treasury Department advice and cooperation concerning the details of the moonshining business.
As Luke constantly reminisces about some time in the past before he went off to the war and life became too complicated, so too did Mitchum seem to long for a time when people like Luke Doolin would have been left alone.  Probably because of the theme of conscious isolation, a movie like Thunder Road would not appeal to many audiences outside of America.  Recently, I heard about a study conducted by the University of Chicago contrasting American attitudes concerning collectivism with other nations.  This study concluded that Americans are challenged in their capacity to understand other points of views.  The Chinese, the study went onto say, are much more able to comprehend other people’s perspective because of the collectivist bend of their upbringing.  (I guess I’d question whether it is their ability to see someone else’s point of view or their compliant attitude that makes the Chinese collectivists.  This was a nation that not long ago killed or allowed to starve some thirty or forty million people.)  In any case, Luke was by every definition of this study an American.
Thunder Road was the model for many anti-establishment movies to come some twenty years later like Bullitt or Easy Rider.  Mitchum was Hollywood’s earliest “anti-hero” long before the term “anti-hero” was even used – and later overused.  Luke Doolin was a troublemaker with no aspirations to lead or follow, and he didn’t seem concerned about the point of views of his neighbors.  Luke was selfish, stubborn and often rash.  He definitely was inviting problems upon his own community by the way he lived his life.  Thus, Luke was American in his anti-authoritarianism.  It should also be said that he was courageous, unique and capable.  He was more than just a useful tool for the authorities to bring down the mob.  Rather than submit to fate, he was active in trying to bring down anyone who tried to prevent him from doing as he pleased.  And ultimately, only a type of character like himself with all of his flaws could have succeeded in doing just that.
July 31, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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