Cast & Crew
In the back woods of Harlan County, Tennessee, Korean war veteran and moonshine runner Lucas Doolin evades arrest by agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Treasury Department, led by Troy Barrett. Upon returning to his home in a country valley, Luke has his younger brother Robin repair the damage done to his car during the escape. A little later, neighbor Roxanna "Roxie" Ledbetter stops at the Doolins' to invite Luke to an upcoming dance, but Luke declines, as he will be on another delivery run. The next day, Roxie telephones the Doolins to report that a local liquor transporter was killed in an ambush. When Luke relays the news to his father Vernon, the older man suspects that the ambush was set up by racketeer Carl Kogan, who controls most of the moonshine counties in Tennessee and Kentucky and has proposed to organize Harlan County. Luke rejects Kogan's demand for a percentage of their profits and control over their operation. Later, after Luke departs on another delivery, a church service is held for the ambushed driver while a meeting of the county moonshiners is held in the church basement. Vernon recommends that all the stiller and transporters in the county be contacted and their stills be relocated, and that the transport cars and routes be changed to avoid Kogan's encroachment. Vernon adds that Luke has suggested all drivers carry shotguns for self-defense. With the exception of young Stacey Gouge and retired Jess, the county moonshiners vote to reject Kogan's proposal. The night of the dance, Robin asks to accompany Luke on his liquor delivery, but Luke refuses, telling his brother that he will never allow him in the "business." En route to Memphis, Luke is shot at on a back road and then followed by a pair of Kogan's men. Using a device that Robin has attached to the car, Luke sprays the road behind him with oil, causing Kogan's men to lose control of their car and crash. Outside of Memphis, Luke stops at Frank's garage to deliver his 250 gallon load of liquor. Later, Luke visits a Memphis nightclub to see his girl friend, singer Francie Wymore. When Kogan's crony Lucky presses Luke to meet with Kogan, Luke refuses. The next day, however, Luke stops at a garage that Kogan owns, and to his surprise, finds Stacey working there. Luke meets with Kogan privately and rebuffs his blunt offer to join him. When Kogan then threatens him, Luke knocks him out and escapes through the window. Two patrolmen report Luke's escape to Barrett who orders him taken into custody. Although Luke gives the police an alias, Barrett tells him that he knows his identity as a longtime whiskey runner and asks him for help in identifying the racketeer trying to break into the area. Even though Luke refuses, Barrett authorizes his release, anticipating that Luke will eventually lead him to Kogan. Luke returns to visit Francie, where he reflects on why he is considered an outlaw when he is only continuing his family's long tradition of moonshining. Luke then notes the irony of being pursued by the government that he served during the war. Francie asks Luke to give up his deliveries and settle down with her, but despite his feelings for her, Luke confesses that he is a loner. Later, Luke returns home in a new car that Robin promptly fits with a tanker. When fellow transporter Jed Moultrie asks to buy Luke's old car, Luke attempts to dissuade him, pointing out that the car is too well-known. Jed insists, however and Luke eventually agrees. Meanwhile, suspicious that Luke's hasty release from jail indicates he is helping the police, Kogan orders Lucky to kill him. A few days later in town, Barrett and his partner, Mike Williams, spot Luke's car and as Williams questions Jed, the car explodes, killing both men. Although Luke feels guilty about Jed's death, he refuses to stop his deliveries, but assures both Roxie and his mother Sarah that he will never allow Robin to become involved. Soon after the explosion, Barrett and his men arrest many moonshiners and destroy numerous stills. Barrett's arrests and Kogan's threats put pressure on the moonshiners, prompting them to close their stills. Vernon confesses to Jess that after his last supply of whiskey is delivered, he will close down as well, but remains certain that moonshining will return to the valley someday. While taking Vernon's last delivery to Memphis, Luke is ambushed by Lucky, but succeeds in crashing through his car barrier. Stopping at Frank's for repairs, Luke phones Vernon to assure him that he is safe. Meanwhile, Barrett stops at the Doolins' and asks Robin where he can find Luke. Although Robin refuses to cooperate with Barrett, the agent asks him to warn Luke that Kogan is determined to kill him and that Barrett needs Luke's help to arrest Kogan. Learning of Luke's whereabouts from Vernon, Robin takes a bus to warn Luke, but his brother refuses to meet with Barrett. Angered when Luke refuses to take him along, Robin returns home and accepts an offer to make a whiskey delivery for Stacey, unaware that he is working for Kogan. Roxie learns of Robin's plans and locates Luke in time for him to stop the delivery. Luke sends Robin home, then telephones Kogan and threatens to kill him for daring to involve Robin in his plans. Concerned when Robin returns home without Luke, Roxie looks for Barrett and is assisted by his wife Mary. While Luke meets Francie at a roadside cafe, Barrett arrests Kogan for involvement in Williams' and Jed's murders. Barrett then orders roadblocks erected to intercept Luke, who has resumed his Memphis delivery. Traveling at high speed, Luke's car runs over a barricade, spins out of control and crashes into an electrical power building, killing Luke. Witnessing the accident's aftermath, Barrett laments Luke's death. Back in the valley, Roxie and Robin wait together while Luke's body is brought home.
James Atlee Phillips
In the biography, Them Ornery Mitchum Boys by John Mitchum, the famous scene is recalled. "Before the shooting, Carey dug a trench along the side of the road. When he was satisfied with his trench, he told Bob he was ready. What the moviegoer sees is a perfect sequence of a car careening down a mountain road at breakneck speed. It turns over three times and lands exactly as Bob had wanted. When Bob ran over to the car, Carey grinned up at him. "Is this where you wanted it?"
"Later, I was watching the rushes," recalled Bob, "when I saw something I couldn't believe. I told the projectionist to roll it back, do it in slow motion. There it was: Carey was smoking a cigarette and, just as the car started to careen, he nonchalantly flipped the butt out of the car, leaning into the interior. He was the perfect picture of 'cool'."
And 'cool' is also the perfect adjective to describe Thunder Road, a cult film if there ever was one. Just read this excerpt from King of the Bs in which writer Richard Thompson rhapsodizes about the film:
"Thunder Road disciples envy those who saw it exactly right: at a drive-in, sitting in their customed Fords and Chevs, just after leaving the high school dance and just before juking on down to Shakey's Pizza Parlor...Thunder Road is a film made for those among us who have felt the mystery and elation of driving - not being in a car, but driving - a road at night, the blackness interrupted only by the contrapuntal rhythm of passing streetlights and the opposed streams of headlights and taillights as they merge, maneuver, clash, and vanish - marking motion but not progress."
Thunder Road was a personal project for Mitchum and he loved every minute of it from schmoozing with officials at the U.S. Treasury Department in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division to filming on-location in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition, he tried to persuade Elvis Presley to take the role of his brother (eventually played by his own son) but the King's asking price, arranged through his manager, Colonel Parker, was more than the budget of the entire film.
In another unpredictable move, Mitchum hired Arthur Ripley to direct. Ripley, a former gag writer for Mack Sennett, was an eccentric talent who didn't function well within the Hollywood studio system but flourished outside it, directing tightly paced, independent films like A Voice in the Wind (1944) and The Chase (1946). Ripley was also a great drinking companion for Mitchum who, no doubt, was anxious to do some serious 'research' on the local moonshine industry. According to former FBI agent, Al Dowtin, in the biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press), the actor " was kind of interested in knowing about the white liquor. See, there was a kind of mystique to it. Whenever a still would start running, the first liquor that came out would be about a hundred and fifty proof. Then as the mash would run, it got lower. But all the liquor we confiscated always came out about a hundred percent...so the illegal stuff was always a bit stronger. Bob liked hearing about that, and I'm sure he probably drank a little of it when he was here. Somebody got some white liquor for him."
Once shooting began, Thunder Road evolved into a non-stop party for Mitchum, his cast and crew, and the local residents of Asheville, but it's no less fun for B-movie connoisseurs and film trivia nuts. Look for Sandra Knight, the former wife of Jack Nicholson, in the role of Roxanne Ledbetter. Sandra never quite made it onto the A-list of Hollywood actresses and ended up in laughable dreck like Frankenstein's Daughter (1958). As for that spectacular car crash at the finale of Thunder Road, it later turned up in They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968) and, more recently, in Species (1995) (The alien title character hatches a diabolical plan after watching it on television!!).
Producer: Robert Mitchum
Director: Arthur Ripley
Screenplay: Robert Mitchum, James Atlee Phillips, Walter Wise
Special Effects: Jack Lannan, Lester Swartz
Cinematography: Alan Stensvold
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Original Music: Jack Marshall, Robert Mitchum (songs), Don Raye (songs)
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Lucas Doolin), Gene Barry (Troy Barrett), Jacques Aubuchon (Carl Kogan), Keely Smith (Francie Wymore), Trevor Bardette (Vernon Doolin), Sandra Knight (Roxanne Ledbetter), James Mitchum (Robin Doolin), Peter Breck (Stacey Gouge).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
The '57 Ford used in the crash scene was specially built to withstand the force of impact when it was driven in-between the two revenuer cars. The front fenders were made of cast steel and the body and frame were heavily reinforced. The weight of the car was such that special solid sponge rubber tires had to be fabricated and used. No tire of the day could support the weight and speed the car had to attain and still look like normal car tires. The engine also had to be highly modified to produce the horsepower necessary for the speed requirement.
The role of Robin was offered to Elvis Presley, who showed interest, but the idea was nixed by Presley's manager, Tom Parker.
All of the "moonrunner" cars in the film had actually been used by moonshiners in the Asheville, North Carolina, area, where the film was shot. The moonshiners sold the cars to the film company in order to buy newer and faster cars.
The 1950 Ford that Robert Mitchum drives in the beginning is actually a 1951 Ford with a 1950 grille, and the chrome windsplits removed. The give-away: the V-8 emblems, the "Ford Custom" emblems on the front fenders, the dashboard, and steering wheel.
The working titles of the film were Jack O'Diamonds and The Whippoorwill. Thunder Road was the first film produced by actor Robert Mitchum's company, D.R.M. Productions. Mitchum co-wrote the song "Whippoorwill" for the movie, which is sung by Keely Smith (wife and partner of popular band leader Louis Prima), who plays "Francie Wymore." Mitchum himself later made a recording of the song, which found mild success on the "pop" radio charts.
According to modern sources, including Mitchum's autobiography, the role of "Robin Doolin" was initially offered to Elvis Presley. Presley's high fee, however, precluded his accepting the role, which then became the feature film debut for James Mitchum, Mitchum's sixteen-year-old son. Thunder Road also marked the motion picture debut of actress Sandra Knight. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Robert Mitchum broke his ankle during filming, but resumed work after only a brief hospitalization. According to Hollywood Reporter production information, Larry Scruggs was slated to appear in the film, but his appearance in the finished film has not been confirmed. Thunder Road was shot on location in Asheville, NC.
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988
Released in United States Spring May 1958
Released in United States Spring May 1958
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988