Robert Mitchum puts the pedal to the metal as a moonshine runner at odds with both the Feds and gangsters in THUNDER ROAD. This is Mitchum’s most personal picture, not only starring but producing, writing the story (and two songs!), and, rumor has it, doing much of the directing. His notorious independent streak comes through in his character Luke Doolin, a Korean War vet who believes in the right of individual ownership, whether on his land or in his car, and free market enterprise, without interference from outsiders or the government. That’s right, Luke Doolin is a true Libertarian hero!
He’s also the best damn driver in River Valley, Kentucky, as we see in the opening scene, speeding down the backroads, eluding police with the greatest of ease. The Doolins have been making moonshine for generations, with daddy Vernon running the still, baby brother Robin the family mechanic, and mama Sarah praying for their souls every Sunday at church. The local menfolk are all anti-authority, and refuse to knuckle under to big city gangster Kogan and work under him, even after one of their own dies in an “accident”. Vernon tells the crowd Luke has promised to fight the crime cartel tooth and nail, to the death if necessary.
Kogan and his hoods aren’t the only problem facing Luke. Special Treasury Agent Troy Barrett of the Beaureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Tax Division has been assigned to nab the cocky Luke, who’s been making a mockery out of them. The only problem Luke doesn’t have is with women, as both sweet Roxanna back home and sultry singer Francine in Memphis are in love with him. When Kogan’s men try to take him out with guns on a lonely stretch of highway, Luke pulls the old oil slick trick, sending the goons to their death in a fiery crash. Confronting Kogan at his Memphis HQ, Luke answers his “How rough do you want it?” query with a swift karate chop, peeling out as he makes his getaway only to be chased down by the cops.
Barrett tries to make a deal with Luke to nail the gangster, but stand-up guy Luke will have none of that. Barrett tells him the Feds now have him on file, and will put the pressure on, but Luke nonchalantly replies, “First you got to catch me… if you can”. Luke’s 1951 Ford Coupe is now red hot, and he reluctantly sells it to his cousin Jed. The Feds see it parked, and Barrett’s partner approaches, only to be blown to smithereens along with Jed thanks to a bomb planted by Kogan’s men. Barrett and his agents launch an all-out assault on River Valley, busting and blowing up stills, hoping to put an end to the war. But Luke’s determined to make one more run, especially after finding out Kogan plans to set up his baby brother, resulting in a mad dash to Memphis with both a killer on the road and the Feds out to stop him.
The low budget might make you think Mitchum’s been plopped smack-dab in the middle of an AIP exploitation flick; it’s got that kind of vibe to it. But it all works, mainly thanks to Mitchum’s enviable cool factor. He’s just so easy-breezy as Luke Doolin (as he was in most of his films) one can’t even tell he’s acting. Perhaps that’s why he never won an Oscar; he makes it look too easy. Even during his love scenes with singer Keely Smith (Francine), who’s as wooden as a popsicle stick, you believe him. Robert Mitchum was that damn good.
The part of little brother Robin was expressly written with Elvis Presley in mind, but his greedy manager Col. Tom Parker wanted too much money, so producer Mitchum hired his son James to play the role. Mitchum’s other son Christopher also appears briefly as a washboard player in the dance scene, making this a family affair (both younger Mitchum’s went on to film careers). Gene Barry (TV’s BAT MASTERSON, BURKE’S LAW) handles the part of Federal Agent Barrett like he’s DRAGNET’s Joe Friday, and that’s not a knock, it’s a compliment. Other Familiar Faces besides the aforementioned Miss Smith include Jacques Aubuchon, Trevor Bardette, Sandra Knight, Peter Breck (Nick on THE BIG VALLEY), and Randy Sparks, who sings the title tune. Mitchum himself later recorded his version of the song, hitting the pop charts in both 1958 and 1962!
THUNDER ROAD was a big hit on the drive-in circuit for decades, and influenced a whole genre of moonshine runner movies. Veteran director Arthur Ripley, who hadn’t made a film in a dozen years, gets the credit, though most sources agree Mitchum was calling the shots. The pace is fast and furious, but THUNDER ROAD isn’t just an action pic; it’s a political statement on individuality and freedom without being overtly political about it. How I wish modern-day Hollywood filmmakers would learn from it, instead of trying to hammer us over the head with their message!