Robert Mitchum's car-chase classic put the mountain South on the Hollywood map
This article was originally published on February 6, 2018 as part of FilmArt, a regular column I wrote for the Toronto International Film Festival's (now-defunct) online publication, The Review. In FilmArt I generally wrote about the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience, though sometimes — as in this case — I widened my scope a little bit to tell a bigger story about a film.
“The first film I remember seeing was Thunder Road … I saw it in a drive-in theatre in Florida on vacation with my mother and sister; I was really small, about 6. It had pretty violent car chase scenes — running through roadblocks in hopped-up Chevys. That I remember impressed me a lot.”
— Jim Jarmusch
The various posters for Thunder Road all feature the same illustration of a deranged-looking Robert Mitchum as he either “blasts the screen” or “roars down the hottest highway on earth.”
On the basis of these posters, anyone unfamiliar with the film could be forgiven for expecting a hot-rods-to-Hell opus with Mitchum playing another of his unhinged anti-heroes — a Cape Fear on wheels. Those who have actually seen Thunder Road, however, will see in these blaring broadsheets something quite at odds with this dreamy little movie, which shares many of the qualities of its star-producer-writer-uncredited director Mitchum: it’s brusque, languid, a little bedraggled, and ultimately oddly haunting.
Even more odd is the fact that this low-budget black-and-white B movie about backwoods moonshiners trying to outrace both the Mob and the Law became the best-loved, longest-running, and most financially successful film in its star’s half-century career — a cult classic of the pre-home video era. For over 20 years after its 1958 premiere, Thunder Road could regularly be found on screens across the American South. Even as Mitchum’s career entered its twilight in the ‘70s, Thunder Road was still pulling in audiences, and profits. (Mitchum once said he made more from Thunder Road than from the 50-odd films he made before it, which includes such hits as Crossfire, River of No Return, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.)
And for the Southern audiences who kept it alive for so long, Thunder Road became the defining movie of the actor’s long and prolific career: in the first line of its obituary for Mitchum in 1997, The Asheville Citizen-Times — the local paper of the town where the film was shot 40 years earlier — declared that “[f]or many in Western North Carolina, actor Robert Mitchum will be remembered most as the star of the action film Thunder Road, which brought a touch of Hollywood to the mountains in 1957 and defined the ‘moonshiner’ movie forever.”
Why did Thunder Road connect with certain audiences so much, and for so long? While Thunder Road has a reputation as one of the all-time great car-chase movies, anyone expecting the thrills of Mad Max or Bullitt (or even Smokey and the Bandit) might be surprised by this pensive little movie punctuated by only a handful of scenes of hard driving. What did it offer to those largely Southern viewers who repeatedly sought it out in 1965, 1975 or 1980, even as Jaws, Rocky and Star Wars were heralding the beginning of the world-conquering blockbuster era?
While the movies have always promised an escape from our humdrum lives, since their invention they have also captivated viewers precisely by putting those lives — the sights, sounds, places, and textures — up on the screen. As Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself argued at length, movies can act as incidental catalogues of real spaces that may no longer exist, and seeing a recognizable hometown site in a film can elicit a strange thrill in us. (While I no longer call Toronto home, any time I watch any shot-in-T.O. flick I often have one eye fixed firmly on the background, doggedly noting geographical gaffes and long-gone businesses.)
No less than fantasy, authenticity is one of the reasons we go to the movies, and that ineffable sense that a film has got a place right — even perhaps a place we’ve never been to ourselves — can deepen our appreciation and involvement in its story. Take, for example, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which evinces such fondness and specificity for its Sacramento setting that viewers completely unfamiliar with the Almond Capital of the World can share in the title character’s conflicted relationship with her hometown. Contrast that with Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, a film set in a contemporary Heartland ’Murica so unrecognizable that its actual inhabitants bypassed the NASCAR caper altogether.
While the antebellum South has always been a troublingly popular backdrop for Hollywood movies, portrayals of modern-day life below the 40th parallel are rare — especially for the people of Appalachia, the mountainous region stretching southwest from West Virginia, through Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas to northern Alabama and Mississippi. It was this area that Thunder Road depicted so vividly, in its compassionate and (comparatively) authentic portrayal of modern Appalachia that appealed to both the law-abiding majority of the region, who had rarely seen anything resembling home reflected on film, as well as to a law-flaunting contingent that would become intoxicated by the souped-up Ford that Mitchum’s Luke Doolin drives in the film. Even if we can safely assume that the lives of the region’s actual “stock”-car drivers were not quite so dramatic, Thunder Road was still impressively grounded in the real textures and history of both the region, and the illicit trade hidden in its hillsides.
In 1908, North Carolina became the first Southern state to ban the sale of alcohol. As would happen when the rest of the nation dried up in 1920 with the passing of the Volstead Act, bootleggers proliferated, happy to wet the whistles of the Tar Heel State’s parched citizens. Compared to their profiteering counterparts north of the Mason-Dixon line, for many Southern scofflaws bootlegging was just a continuation of family tradition. The first European settlers in the region had largely emigrated from England and Scotland, bringing their knowledge of distilling with them, and the introduction of a “sin tax” on alcohol in the late 18th century inspired many households to engage in the manufacture and trade of untaxed “white lightning” liquor on the sly. Moonshining became a source of income for generations of North Carolinian families, and as the national market for illicit hooch exploded in the 1920s, Carolinian liquor began fetching high prices in cities as far away as Chicago.
By this time, the moonshining tradition in North Carolina had also become a familiar subject for the movies — in fact, the first film to depict the region on screen was titled The Moonshiner. Released in 1904, the film was a runaway success, to the point that four years later it was still being promoted as “the most widely known and most popular film ever made,” or, in the case of the ad from the Deadwood Pioneer Times above, “one of the greatest films ever presented in Deadwood.”
The success of The Moonshiner led to a glut of copycats — in Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies, author Jerry Williamson counts an additional 475 films on the topic made during the silent era — which gradually replaced regionally specific settings and characters with boilerplate plots and stereotypes. Where the title subject of The Moonshiner was portrayed as middle class, films like The Hills of Strife (1913), Moonshine Molly (1914), and The Moonshine Menace (1921) depicted the region’s inhabitants as proud, bearded, rifle-brandishing, cartoonishly impoverished (white) mountain men, equally mythologizing and denigrating the people of the mountain South. Throughout the 1920s, the “mountain man” cliché mutated into that of the buffoonish yokel (tellingly, the term “hillbilly” was not widely used until after WWI, and it can only be found in the title of one of Williamson’s 476 films, Billie the Hill Billy); and come the arrival of sound, if films bothered to include modern-day Southerners at all, they were likely to revisit the caricatures of the silent era. (Naturally, the situation was — and remains — significantly more dire for Southern African Americans looking for representations of themselves in the movies.)
A mere six years after the Twenty-first Amendment resaturated the nation in 1933, a film like Raoul Walsh’s great gangster flick The Roaring Twenties could depict the Prohibition era as if it were something from the distant past. For North Carolina, however — which only fully emerged from Prohibition in 1937, four years after the rest of the US — it was still a lived reality, and one whose historical roots ran deep. For better or worse, distilling had become intimately entwined with the myth of Appalachian rugged individualism — so even though, after ’37, citizens could now legally purchase their booze from state-run liquor stores, many saw no reason to pay tax-inflated prices when their neighbours were still brewing perfectly good hooch.
Nothing doing there for Uncle Sam, of course: the government wanted its cut, and the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division dispatched agents — or “revenuers,” as they came to be known among the locals — to catch the makers and transporters of moonshine liquor. “There was stills all over them mountains in western North Carolina. About eleven hundred stills,” recalls Al Dowtin, one of the “revenue boys” who served as technical adviser for Thunder Road, in Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum. “And when I was working with Alcohol Tax, we arrested over ten thousand people.”
The ongoing moonshine wars in the state captured the imagination of Mitchum, who had spent his early childhood in South Carolina. For years, the actor had been kicking around the idea of a “moonshine adventure” movie about a vet returning home and getting caught up in his family’s booze-running biz. Somewhere along the way, a writer named Walter Wise developed Mitchum’s story into a full-fledged screenplay. Unsatisfied with the script’s authenticity, Mitchum recruited pulp writer (and likely drinking buddy) James Atlee Phillips. While he had few Hollywood credits to his name — Thunder Road remains his only official film credit, though he also worked on John Wayne’s pet project, the risible anti-communist adventure Big Jim McLain — what Phillips did have was a younger brother who was an up-and-comer in the CIA, and who connected the Hollywood duo with officials in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. Given access to the Division’s records, Mitchum and Phillips spent days pulling details from case files before heading over to the Library of Congress to crib from their collection of Southern folk materials. Mitchum then drifted southeast to Asheville, North Carolina, where, with an introductory note from the younger Phillips, he connected with local Treasury agents.
In addition to Phillips, Mitchum recruited stunt driver Carey Loftin to handle the numerous car chases, and Arthur Ripley — a veteran of low-budget pictures whose most notable prior credit was the cult 1946 noir The Chase — was plucked from a teaching gig at UCLA and set up behind the camera as the nominal director. (Given Mitchum’s intense involvement with the production, however, many accounts assume that the star-producer-writer-songwriter also served as the film’s uncredited director.) Though Mitchum had never worked with Ripley, he vaguely remembered one of the director’s movies and felt he was the man for the job. (Mitchum would later accord Ripley what were doubtlessly the actor’s highest terms of praise: “He was a very gifted man and a drinking fellow.”)
Also along for the ride was Mitchum’s teenage son James, making his acting debut as his 40-year-old pop’s younger brother in the film — a role that was originally intended for a significantly more famous player. As legend has it, Mitchum showed up the hotel where noted Mitchum fan Elvis Presley was staying, bearing the screenplay in one hand and a fifth of scotch in the other. After a few hours of elbow-bending, Mitchum proclaimed to Presley, “Here’s the fuckin’ script. Let’s get together and do it.” Then in came Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who demanded that the majority of Thunder Road’s budget go to his star.
Exit the King, enter Jim Mitchum, who came with a much lower price tag. “He was paid a salary of $280 a week. I’m a producer first and a father second,” Mitchum joked in a typically tongue-in-cheek press blitz. “I don’t intend to support Jim forever, so I put him to work. Now he can pay his own income tax.” (With others, Mitchum was a more laid-back producer: stunt coordinator Loftin recalls that when it came time to talk money, Mitchum chided him “What do you want to talk about it for? Just be fair. Don’t fuck me or don’t fuck yourself. Write it down and we have a deal.”)
On July 10, 1957, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Robert Mitchum’s Jack of Diamonds, a “major motion picture” with a “million-dollar budget,” would be filmed in Asheville and nearby counties. Once best known as the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe, Asheville has recently gained fame as a haven for hipsters seeking “authentic” Americana, while at the same time serving as a key battleground for trans equality in a state that has led the charge on discriminatory “bathroom bills.” But in the 1950s it was a typical US city (the fact that several Thunder Road ads in the local newspapers denote a “Colored Balcony” serves as a sad reminder of just how typical), and one which quickly became enamoured of its famous visitor. The trickle of local news items about the forthcoming production swelled into a flood when Mitchum and company arrived the week before Labor Day to start filming what was now titled The Whippoorwill.
Modern accounts of the production depict it as a bit of booze-up, with the producer-star’s cavorting and widespread insobriety among the crew led to a (shall we say) leisurely shooting schedule that extended quite far beyond the planned 30 days. But true to the tenor of the time, the local press presented a decidedly more wholesome take on the social life of the movie star in their midst, documenting Mitchum’s participation in a local parade, his appointment as honorary field marshal at a local car meet, a visit from 23 kinfolk from nearby South Carolina, good-natured jabs at his poolhall prowess, and an offer from a Wilkes County whisky maker to set up a proper still for the actor.
As production wrapped in October, Citizen-Times reporter Karl Fleming (who like many Asheville residents had a small role in the film) summed up that since August, the production had spent $125,000 in the area and was responsible for employing 250 to 300 locals. “While this area will not be identified in the film, Asheville people will look forward with eagerness to seeing the movie not only because of its entertainment value, but because so many of them appear in it,” he wrote.
Fleming was right. On May 9, the film, re-baptized one final time as Thunder Road, had its world premiere at Asheville’s Imperial Theater, and the town’s citizenry turned out in droves (despite a front-page Citizen-Times pan from Fleming: “[A]bout the best one can say is that this is not the worst movie ever made. But it’s close”). Over the next two weeks, 23,000 people saw Thunder Road at the Imperial before it expanded to a wider release in local cinemas and drive-in theatres across the South — which is where it really started burning rubber.
In a 2017 column for nearby Rowan County’s Salisbury Post, columnist Mike Cline, whose family operated two local drive-ins, likens Thunder Road’s success that first summer to otherworldly phenomena. “Movies playing our theatres more than three nights were as rare as kryptonite meteorites. Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments had stretched to as many as seven. Thunder Road ended up playing 22 consecutive nights — two showings per night and with 400 cars each showing.”
While in other markets Thunder Road had the typical lifespan of a mid-sized film of the period (in Toronto it had a modest debut at the late lamented Uptown Theatre on June 28, 1958, returned for a short run at the Savoy in early October and was airing regularly on TV by 1963), at Southern venues like those belonging to the Cline family the film was a drive-in staple for the next 20 years. “That movie has never been reissued because it’s never been away,” Mitchum boasted in a 1972 interview. “It has continued to pack ‘em in — I understand when it’s shown on TV that the drive-in trade for the night falls off sharply.”
So what was the strange magic that Thunder Road exerted over Southern viewers — even those beyond the Asheville locals who had first turned out to see their friends, families, and familiar haunts on the big screen? Though Mitchum’s Luke Doolin was longer in tooth than James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, he offered a similar morose, romantic rebel appeal — but unlike those California-set films, Thunder Road offered angry young men from Kansas to Florida a more familiar context for their fantasized rebellion. In Hillbillyland, Williamson describes the film as freeing “some of those same rank wild juices that old raccoon skin had stimulated three years earlier with the debut of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, only by this time the former Disney audience had grown out of frontier costume and into four wheels and eight pistons. […] Robert Mitchum fuelled empty egos. Rollovers proliferated as many a teenage hellraiser tried to duplicate the bootleg turn.”
These backroads Brandos also helped the film achieve offscreen success in jukeboxes across the country. Shortly before embarking down Thunder Road, Mitchum had been shooting a film in Trinidad and Tobago, where he developed an affinity for calypso music — a genre that had recently been exposed to white America through Harry Belafonte’s hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” So enamoured was Mitchum that he made the unlikely career move of recording a calypso album for Capitol Records — one which, to modern ears, strikes a fairly uncomfortable note of auditory blackface on those tracks where the actor-turned-singer attempts to approximate the Caribbean patois. Audiences of the time didn’t dig it either, and Mitchum promptly set aside his microphone.
But Thunder Road provided a second chance for Mitchum to showcase his musical talents, and he provided two songs for the film. The first, “The Whippoorwill,” was sung on screen by Keely Smith, who played Luke Doolin’s lounge-singing love interest; . Mitchum had written the song as a teen for Dorothy Clements Spence, whom he had met at 16, wed at 23, and remained married to until his death in 1997 (despite his many indiscreet infidelities over the years).
The second song, “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” appeared over the opening credits, and as an instrumental motif in almost all of the film’s car-chase scenes. As the actor’s brother John Mitchum recalls in his book Them Ornery Mitchum Boys, “[Bob] had finished the lyrics but couldn’t come up with a melody until our Norwegian mother suggested an old Norwegian pavanne: it turned out to be the right one.”
While “The Ballad of Thunder Road” had been performed by Randy Sparks for the movie, in tandem with the film’s release Capitol released a 45” single of Mitchum crooning the track. The song was a Billboard hit twice, charting in both 1958 and 1962 with a total of 21 weeks on the chart. The ballad’s success seemed to sate Mitchum’s pop ambitions for the moment — though he did eventually drop a second full-length album, the 1967 That Man, Robert Mitchum...Sings (which featured a new recording of "The Ballad of Thunder Road" and his own rendition of "The Whippoorwhill").
The commercial success of Thunder Road led to a proliferation of Southern-set car-chase movies about self-destructive renegades bucking the law from behind the wheel. In the latter half of its two-decade theatrical run, Thunder Road often played as a second feature to films it had directly inspired, such as White Lightning, Moonshine County Express, Grand Theft Auto, Vanishing Point, and Moonrunners (which, cleverly, co-starred a then much older Jim Mitchum).
But perhaps the film’s most lasting legacy was the result of a young New Jersey rocker who didn’t even bother to see the movie. “I only saw the poster in the lobby in the theatre,” recalled Bruce Springsteen. “I took the title and I wrote [the] song.”
Released as the kick-off track on Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run, “Thunder Road” kept the name of Mitchum’s movie alive for millions of people who had never even seen it.
In an effusive appreciation of the actor, Pauline Kael quoted Mitchum as saying of his work, “These pictures — I can do them and walk away from them. It’s all finished and I never have to see them — and I’m not that involved. Furthermore, I don’t let anyone down. I don’t want that responsibility. I don’t want that deep involvement.” But when he was asked about Thunder Road in a 1973 interview, Mitchum seemed genuinely regretful about what he viewed as a missed opportunity. “It could have been a great film. That’s my fault. I didn’t realize I owned it. Honestly. It was popular. You can’t believe how popular. I’m sorry it wasn’t better. But it wasn’t great and I’m sorry about that. It was my own design. My shots.”
But while its creator maintained misgivings about the film’s quality, Thunder Road undoubtedly offered a recognizable view of “home” to a certain audience — an audience attracted less by the “billion-dollar whiskey war” of the film’s official promo materials than by the “shot in Asheville” credit tacked on by local exhibitors. Mitchum may have mourned that he walked through his passion project like so many of the other “gorilla pictures” of his that he disdained, but for generations of Southern viewers he found redemption beneath a dirty hood.
Thunder Road screens Tuesday, February 6, 2018 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Out of the Past: The Films of Robert Mitchum.