“Robert Mitchum wrote, produced, and starred in this explosive cult classic about a Kentucky bootlegger who risks everything to take on the mob and protect his business. With exciting car chases and fine acting, Thunder Road is an enduring fan favorite you're sure to enjoy.” (© Image Entertainment, Inc.)

The quote, taken from a web site promoting a late 1990s video edition of the film released originally in 1958, is misleading, both in the catchy diction employed and in the use of glaring colors. Though Thunder Road is insistently a black-and-white film, the prose of the promotional hardly does justice to the movie. The cult status attributed was above all a regional phenomenon, confined almost exclusively to Appalachia. Nick Clooney recalls in a Cincinnati Post obituary for Mitchum, “In that part of the world, Thunder Road was Gone With The Wind wrapped in Citizen Kane. Some film historians now grudgingly call it a ‘cult favorite.’ But when it was released, it wasn’t a cult that made Thunder Road a hit, unless you want to call large sections of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama a ‘cult.’ In that region, it was a flat-out blockbuster.”

Clooney goes on: “Perhaps those in other parts of the country won’t understand. A case could be made that it was just another modest mountain morality tale. But its theme—and its theme song [i.e., “Ballad of Thunder Road”]—resonated off those dark, brooding hills as few movies have, ever. Robert Mitchum liked the movie too. He loved music, he loved to sing and he loved to write songs. He wrote the title song and it was he who sang, ‘The law they swore they’d get him, but the devil got him first’ as the credits rolled. For those who haven’t seen [the film], the subject is cliched. Moonshine, fast cars, mob moving in on a family business and revenue agents. What made this one different was Robert Mitchum. In those days few experts acknowledged what is now clear. Robert Mitchum was a great film actor. Not many filled the screen with as much presence and magnetism. That’s what he brought to Thunder Road. As a measure of the ‘legs’ this picture had in the Southeast, Robert Mitchum’s recording of the title song spent 11 weeks on Billboard’s hit parade when the movie came out in 1958, then spent another 10 weeks on the chart in 1962! I doubt if it sold many records in New York or Los Angeles, but it was number one in Harlan and Jellico.”

Viewed from a less compulsively regional angle, Thunder Road is an enduring example of Americana in the depiction of the rural upper South, its car culture, the roads and roadsides. “Robert Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, the elder son of an Appalachian family which supplements its meagre income by making and selling illegal liquor. The Doolins and the other local families involved in this trade have two enemies to worry about: the US Treasury Department and the big city crime syndicate, which is determined to wrest control of the lucrative business from the country-folk. The place of confrontation is the road. On the surface then, Thunder Road is a straightforward thriller. Beneath its cut-price surface, between the lines of its plot, it also tells another story” (David Downing).

That other story between the lines of the plot comes to the fore in an abundance of dark greys which dominate the screen as the camera focuses largely on Luke Doolin. The veteran of the Korean (?) war has seen a fair share of the world at large, its big cities and ways of life; he knows that before long the secluded space his kin have inhabited will be overrun as the mountain folk will not be able to bar or withstand the violent invasion of progress and civilization. All men figuring in the movie are crooks in one way or another, and compared to the revenue men and the mobsters, the moonshiners of Sorrowful Mountain, though pursuing unlawful activities as they eke out a living, are really the good guys, even if they are doomed to surrender in the end to the encroachment of big-world civilization. Luke has submitted himself to the traditional ways because he knows he is the best when it comes to running illegal booze, but he will not have his kid brother (acted by James Mitchum, Robert’s son) follow in his steps; and when the mobsters trick the kid brother into attempting a run on his own, Luke takes his place. A conscious act of self sacrifice prevents the boy’s making a fatal mistake.

The movie and its title song, “Ballad of Thunder Road” (co-authored and performed by Robert Mitchum), are obviously alluded to in Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (who conceded that when he wrote the song he “stole” the title from the film). Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” tells a similar story and contains distinct verbal echoes of the film.

link to
“Ballad of Thunder Road”
lyrics and audio sample

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