The film’s story is given over to the life of Major Charles Rane (William Devane) as he, along with some of his men (including a young Tommy Lee Jones), return from Vietnam after being prisoners for seven years. The first scene of the film finds Rane being well received by a congratulatory crowd, although it’s immediately clear that the soldier isn’t given to public speaking or crowds in general. His public good fortune continues as a variety of local business grant Rane gifts – including a clutch of silver coins, one for each day of his captivity.
The receipt of various presents eventually leads to the death of Rane’s estranged wife, who had planned to divorce him and marry the local sheriff, as well as his young son. This plot point is ostensibly the crux of Rolling Thunder as the rest of the film is devoted to Rane tracking down those killers. The juxtaposition of the trials that this soldier than goes through in civilian life and as a prisoner is the subtext that gets a working over here, with various, well placed black and white images and short clips of Rane being tortured in ‘Nam inserted as punctuation.
There’s a great deal more to this flick than the gratuitous violence that graces the screen as Rolling Thunder comes to a close. This is unquestionably a revenge story in the tradition of Hamlet or any other classic and probably part of why Tarantino was initially drawn to the film (most of his work has to do with redemption or seeking a lost possession).
Being released a single year after Taxi Driver in 1977, Paul Schrader, this films writer had apparently not gotten all of the blood and guts out of his system. In the wake of his previous effort, though, the sporadic violence that’s played out during the narrative of Rolling Thunder and culminates in the whorehouse showdown of Rane’s detractors comes off as something different than that ’76 film.
Even as Taxi Driver attempted to show a character, grit in tact, interact with an increasingly violent society, Rolling Thunder doesn’t have a crazy protagonist. Instead, Major Charles Rane and Tommy Lee Jones’ character have been turned into killers by their captives. Each still possesses a sense of propriety, but both still seem to be roaming aimlessly through life subsequent to their return to the States.
Rolling Thunder wasn’t an anti-war screed, but an action movie replete with violent inclinations that attempted to examine the way by which a soldier might be re-acclimated into supposedly gentile American society.