Thunder Road (1958) for the CMBA Fall Blogathon: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.
Director: Arthur Ripley
Elvis fans might tell you that the greatest movie never made was the version of Thunder Road with Presley playing the Kentucky bootlegger who fights both mob and government. Those fans can stop to ponder how cool such a film would have been, and what effect such a role might have had on the trajectory of Elvis’ acting career. But that’s enough time spent on pondering, since the movie that does exist without Elvis is undeniably the greatest Southern moonshine runner hot rod cult classic ever made. It’s the story of the hillbilly Doolin clan’s family business, moonshine production and midnight delivery by ex-soldier Luke Doolin (Robert Mitchum), who drives the route from Kentucky into Memphis in souped up Fords. He needs to outrace the Federal Treasury agents who want their revenue, and a criminal syndicate who want to take over the independent stills and their earnings.
Mitchum not only starred in the film, but also came up with the story and produced through his company DRM Productions. He directed some of the film uncredited, wrote the song “Whipporwill” and wrote and performed the title tune, “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” which managed to chart low nationally but is a fondly remembered hit record in the region so memorably depicted in the movie. Similarly, the movie itself, though usually called a cult film, was a huge hit in the area from Virginia down to Georgia and West through Tennessee, even becoming known as the “Gone With the Wind” of the drive-in circuit.
Mitchum had the idea for this script for years, and even an unsatisfactory draft, but when he met novelist James Atlee Phillips, the project started coming together. James’ brother David used his CIA position to help get authentic inside detail on Treasury Dept. methods, as well as ATF cooperation which involved access to case files. Mitchum’s research extended to studies on regional personalities and moonshine production, including a good deal of product sampling, he looked into cars and locations and started thinking about casting.
Mitchum asked Elvis to play the part of his brother, knowing that the singer wanted something just this juicy and dramatic that wouldn’t involve singing. But Elvis proved too expensive for the low budget allotted and his manager Colonel Tom Parker had too strong a hand in steering the singer toward musical comedy projects. Mitchum’s spitting image teenage son Jim got the role of younger brother Robin, a talented auto tuner who wants to follow in Luke’s tire treads. Other parts were filled with a mix of great actors and familiar faces: Mother Sarah (Francis Koon), Father Vernon (Trevor Bardette), villain Carl (Jacques Aubuchon), nightclub singer Francie (Keely Smith), Treasury agent Troy (Gene Barry), local girl Roxanna (Sandra Knight), as well as Peter Breck, Jerry Hardin and Mitchell Ryan.
The director Mitchum hired was Arthur Ripley, a veteran gag writer who’d worked for Mack Sennett and had a reputation as an unconventional personality capable of very cheap, fast, gritty and exciting work. He took only eight days to direct Voice in the Wind (1944) and made one of the sexiest noirs ever, The Chase (1946), but no features to his name in the 12 years since. When Mitchum called Ripley, he was lecturing at UCLA and Thunder Road would be his last directing job.
The production headquarters was in Asheville, North Carolina and among the many nearby locations used, the most memorable has to be US 129, also known as “The Dragon,” a curvy ten-mile stretch of highway on the North Carolina/Tennessee line. Thunder Road was the first film to shoot on that highway, which went on to appear in some more movies; perhaps its best modern work was in The Fugitive (1993) playing the spot where Harrison Ford jumps off the bridge.
In a story like this and the way of life this movie was depicting, that stretch of road stands for more than a path from A to B or a place where a chase or crash happens. Moonshining and running the finished product was (still is) a valuable part of this culture, a symbol of self-sufficiency and basic rights and freedoms, the pride of several generations, a source of income and a statement against the restrictions and intrusion of Big Government. In that kind of struggle, the road isn’t just a channel of distribution, it’s a battlefield and a fast car is the best weapon.
Appropriately, those fast cars became stars of the picture and were cast as carefully as the humans: a totally authentic fleet of actual moonshine running vehicles bought or borrowed from the locals. Back seats were removed to make room for the cameras. Stunt driver Carey Loftin created stunning chases, flips, spins, and that spectacular climactic crash. Mitchum’s quest for realism, his obsession with finding and using the right dialogue and details about tuning, maintenance, methods and gadgetry (like the Fed car with pincers that grab onto a breakaway bumper), all are a huge part of what jacks Thunder Road well above the average hot rod hick adventure. Luke’s cars, a ‘50 Ford later switched for a ‘57, both became legendary and desirable models and are to this day well-known and lovingly recreated members of the movie auto pantheon.
Thunder Road was Mitchum’s most personal work and one of his coolest roles. He’s a world-weary rebel veteran who does what he knows best, but recognizes change will soon come to this way of life. He races in fabulous hot rods, fueled by defiance and independence, and he makes iconic gestures like flicking his cigarette into a bad guy’s car. Mitchum and company made a movie that fired up a whole generation of gearheads, mythologized backwoods individualism and still holds up as a gritty, exciting B.
“Thunder was his engine and white lightnin’ was his load.”
This post is part of the CMBA Fall Blogathon: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Please click here to see all the other fine blogs taking part and also to get the ebook with selected pieces, available free at Smashwords or on Amazon with all profits going towards the National Film Preservation Foundation.