Classic Corner: Thunder Road

A fun example of how cool and influential a film can be without being particularly good, director Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road launched a thousand imitators and helped create an entire iconography. The existential moonshiner melodrama wasn’t much of a hit upon its initial release in 1958, but the movie stuck around for so many years at the bottom of double bills, distributors took to calling it “the Gone with the Wind of drive-ins.” Produced by Robert Mitchum’s DRM Productions, it was the only time the star took a credited role in the writing, and what’s special about the movie is the extent to which it’s infused with Mitchum’s insouciant, anti-authoritarian attitude. Thunder Road was a counterculture B-picture before anybody really knew what those were yet. Still, it’s telling that Bruce Springsteen wrote the opening track of Born to Run inspired not by the film, but its poster.

Screen door slams. Hotheaded ex-GI Lukas Doolin (Mitchum) is just back from Korea and driving for his family’s North Carolina moonshine business, where his reckless ways have made him a local legend. The humble still workers up in the mountains are being muscled by big city gangsters from Memphis, leaving a trail of dead bodies along these winding country roads. Agents from the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division have been trying to stop the carnage, but are hopeless at getting any information out of the tight-lipped locals. The story goes that when Mitchum was putting the picture together, he cozied up to some real-life Treasury agents, pumping them for inside stories about the region’s relatively recent moonshine wars. Sure enough, when the feds rolled out for a friendly visit to the Asheville set, they were still under the assumption that the star would be playing one of them as the movie’s hero. They went back to Washington pretty quickly.

Thunder Road is a stiff picture with arthritic plotting and some somnambulant supporting performances, yet Robert Mitchum is so unbelievably cool in it you can see why the movie played down South for decades. His Lucas is the kind of archetypal existentialist anti-hero who would soon become a staple of the 1970s New Hollywood: a man of principles in an impossible situation, living only by his own code. He’s not about to work for some big city gangsters and he sure as hell ain’t gonna snitch for Johnny Law. He’s a whiskey runner. He drives for his family and for himself, even if that means he’s not long for this world. If you squint hard enough while watching this movie, you can see Michael Mann’s entire career being born.

The one person Lucas looks out for is his kid brother Robin, a mechanics whiz played without much distinction by the actor’s son, James. The role was originally written for some up and coming crooner Mitchum admired named Elvis Presley. He’d only co-starred in “Love Me Tender” at this point, and Elvis was aching to act in this kind of serious material alongside a star of Mitchum’s magnitude. Alas, as happened every time Elvis got anywhere near a movie that might actually be good, his manager Colonel Tom Parker butted in, demanding a fee for his client larger than Thunder Road’s entire budget. (I would give all the riches on the world for a tape of that conversation between Mitchum and the Colonel.)

So Mitchum gave the part to his own kid instead, reportedly riding his sixteen-year-old son extra-hard on the set to make sure everyone understood there would be no special treatment. It’s a curious thing watching the younger Mitchum onscreen opposite his father. He looks nearly identical, down to the same sleepy eyes and a posture that might best be described as “unique.” Yet he’s got none of his father’s magnetism, none of that inherent mischief or lazy playfulness. You’re looking at an almost exact physical reproduction except missing the essential X-factor that makes handsome men into movie stars. (See also: Eastwood, Scott.) Still, James Mitchum parlayed the role into an okay career, most notably revisiting the subject matter in the 1975 semi-remake Moonrunners, which was itself spun-off into a CBS TV show, though the title was changed to The Dukes of Hazzard.

Arthur Ripley had a resume running back to early Mack Sennett shorts, and was hired by Mitchum on the strength the last picture he’d directed, 1946’s cult classic The Chase. The high-speed shenanigans in Thunder Road are indeed exemplary, but the staging of expository scenes tends to stop the movie dead. Like a lot of people who wound up working for Robert Mitchum, Ripley was someone the star liked to drink with, and stories from the set of Thunder Road became famous Hollywood lore. The most suspicious tale is one Mitchum himself often repeated over the years, in which after a lost weekend the star found himself waking up hungover next to a strange woman, and in his hurry to sneak out of her hotel room absent-mindedly forgot his wristwatch on a bedside table. It wasn’t until she brought the watch to the set the next day that Mitchum realized he’d been with his wife.  

While most stars like to flex their creative muscles in prestige productions, It’s telling that the one movie Robert Mitchum put his name on as a writer was an unassuming B-picture. He co-wrote two songs for the film, with “The Ballad of Thunder Road” spending 21 weeks on the charts. Not exactly Springsteen numbers, but respectable. Who knows, maybe with a little more ambition and a lot more discipline, Thunder Road might have been a truly great movie. But looking at the movie’s legend and still-lingering influence, it clearly didn’t need to be.

“Thunder Road” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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