In the 1950s and early 60s young America was obsessed with cars. Consider Rebel without a Cause (1955), the car songs of Jan and Dean and of the Beach Boys and others. Thunder Road, released in 1958, played directly into this obsession. If you saw the trailer, you would think that cars are all it is about. In reality, although cars and wild races along dangerous mountain roads occupy much of the film, there are other concerns. Thunder Road invokes for me the film Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a modern-day Wild West fable based on the Edward Abbey novel The Last Cowboy. That film traces the struggles of a cowboy (played memorably by Kirk Douglas) who wants to live only on his own terms to escape pursuing law enforcement officials and other pressures of the modern world. He’s struggling to retain his individualism, his identity as a solitary soul in a world that increasingly demands conformity and corporate buy-in-signified by the fences that enclose much of the land through which he passes.
In Thunder Road (1958; dir. Arthur Ripley) this struggle of tradition and the modern, of the way of life in an isolated mountain valley set against the great world outside, of the individual against the demands of the federal government and a corporate criminal syndicate, is expressed in the venerable practices of moonshine and bootlegging.
Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) is the bootlegger who drives illegal whiskey all over the southeast, from Tennessee and North Carolina to Kentucky. Much of his driving is back and forth between the mountain home where he lives and Memphis, Tennessee. These are polar opposites—Memphis is the big city, with all the temptations the word suggests, while home in the mountains is family and tradition and basic human values. In Memphis Doolin carries on an affair with a night club singer (Keely Smith) while at home he tries to fend off the attentions of Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight), who truly loves him.
The central struggle is between Doolin and a corporate hoodlum, Carol Kogan, who is trying to threaten and intimidate all the moonshiners in the area to sell out to him. It’s also with the federal government. Gene Barry plays Troy Barrett, a Treasury Agent on the lookout for illegal moonshiners. Barrett sets out to capture Doolin, who is breaking the law by running whiskey. But Barrett also comes to sympathize with Doolin and wants to save him from Kogan and his henchmen. Kogan begins ambushing and killing moonshiners who won’t sell out to him. Doolin isn’t threatened, so Kogan sets his sights on eliminating him.
In the value system of this film, Barrett is only trying to enforce the law. Doolin is the emblem of American individualism. Kogan epitomizes criminal and corporate greed.
Thunder Road does an admirable job of portraying mountain people in their own contexts. We see what appear to be authentic cabins and farms, mountain farmers dressed in overalls and smoking pipes and talking to one another around a fire. They have their own dignity and are not presented as inbred degenerates. If there are stereotypes here, at least they are not intentionally offensive. The fact that many (if not most) of the mountain men make illegal whiskey is a sign of their adherence to the old ways of life, and of their resistance to the forces of the federal government that wants to regulate and tax the whiskey they make and sell. Apparently, the moonshiners and the feds play by a certain sets of rules that both sides understand. It is Kogan who introduces a new dynamic, who bullies and kills and is essentially nothing more than a ruthless mobster.
As Doolin, Robert Mitchum (who wrote wrote the story on which the film is based, and who coproduced with the director) plays a figure fundamental to 20th-century American cinema and literature—the loner who strikes out against all odds to resist the efforts of governments and corporations to control him. We’ve seen characters like Doolin in Godard’s Breathless (1960), in Easy Rider (1969) and Cool Hand Luke (1967) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and in numerous other literary and cinematic works. He’s an existential hero of the modern age. He doesn’t particularly like what he does, but it’s what he knows, and he’s good at it and intends on getting better and on not being caught until his number comes up—he knows it will. Doolin repeatedly insists that he doesn’t want his younger brother Robin, who keeps his car in repair, from getting involved in bootlegging, and he goes out of his way to prevent him from doing so. In fact, when he learns that Kogan has set his brother up to be ambushed and killed, he calls Kogan up to promise him that he will kill him. This seals Doolin’s fate.
One issue I have with Thunder Road is the unlikely romance Doolin carries on with the Memphis nightclub singer. It’s not only the improbability that a sophisticated big-city singer would be attracted to a mountain moonshiner, but also the improbability that such a woman would ever interest Doolin. Yet he professes his love to her, and we are supposed to believe he means it. I suppose his romance with her is a sign that he is more sophisticated than he lets on, a confirmation of his stated desire to leave moonshining behind for a better life outside the mountains. It’s also the film’s way of trying to make Doolin exceptional and therefore worthy of our attention—would a less savory moonshiner be as interesting as Doolin? Thus the film hedges its bets.
Special effects are also a weakness. The film is convincing in its shots of moonshiners barreling at breakneck speeds down mountain roads, pursued either by the revenuers or Kogan’s gang or both. But when the camera moves inside the car with Doolin, the background behind him is clearly on a screen, moving past the car in a studio. It’s not believable. This problem does not merely reflect the limited technology available when the film was made, but also its low budget.
Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Doolin makes this film an iconic landmark.