Monday, June 23, 2008

The Ballad of Thunder Road

No Heller this AM..the Supremes are going to take it all the way to the end. And before I get into some really serious stuff this morning, I want to first send you to a wonderful article on one of the greatest movies of all time, Robert Mitchum's flawless Thunder Road. Here's some opening lyrics, written and sung by Mitchum, to get you in the mood:

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol

His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load

When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road.

Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town

The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down

Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode
He'd go by like they were standin’ still on Thunder Road.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load

There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst

The law they swore they'd get him, but the Devil got him first.

Mitchum's son Jim, who played Mitchum's younger brother, is planning an updated — but honest — remake. This from the Knoxville Metro Pulse:
Thunder Road is 50 this year.

It has been called the Hillbilly Gone With the Wind, mainly based on its incredible durability on the big screens of the Southern Appalachians. Its status throughout American culture is almost mythical, claimed as an inspiration for the title of one of Bruce Springsteen’s early hits and the design of the Batmobile in the iconic ‘60s TV series. The movie’s plot has nothing obvious to do with the story of the Springsteen song “Thunder Road,” but it seems to have a lot to do with a much-later hit song by Steve Earle called “Copperhead Road.” Here in Knoxville, the movie has inspired the name of a strong ale at Calhoun’s and a distinctive cheeseburger at Litton’s. Local rock ’n’ roll hero R.B. Morris has recorded his own version of the movie’s theme, “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” and sometimes closes shows with it.

Whether it’s a great film or not depends on which critic you talk to. It was a B movie not taken very seriously even by some of the people who made it, and it wasn’t any bigger a winner at the box office in 1958 than its makers expected it to be. But long after its contemporaries were forgotten, Thunder Road was enjoying a long and almost eerie afterlife, shown in drive-ins throughout the South for more than 20 years in the ’60s and ’70s as if it were a new movie.

It earned a surprising superlative. It was, allegedly, the most-screened film in the history of United Artists. It may have further life still. Jim Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum, the real creator of Thunder Road, is planning a reprise, a new movie with some big-name backing. The younger Mitchum will be in Knoxville this weekend for several events, among them a public screening of the movie at the Tennessee Theatre.
As you've read here before, Thunder Road played large in my early years because the transportation of untaxed whiskey was something of a family business. I thrilled to stories of my uncles and cousins who were "runners," out-distancing "the damn revenue agents" on backroads, across cotton fields and sometimes in just flat-out sprints. It was ineveitable about about 50 viewings of Thunder Road that I became a street racer as soon as I could lay my hands on the car, my much-written-about Ford factory racer, a 1968 British racing Green Cougar without a single badge or marking on the outside to hint at the almost 400 horsepower, dual four-barreled monster under the hood.

One summer full moon night, I outran a Sheriff's Deputy in a dead sprint to the Mississippi state line. It was a street racing game of sorts...I'd go to jail if he caught me, but fairs fair...he'd stop at the Mississippi line and if I got there ahead of him, I got a free pass. Yes, he could have radio'ed ahead, but these were different times, the last of the old America, where "bad" boys didn't get madatory Ritalin and anger counseling and the cops who policed the county back raods had been racing on them a couple of years before.

It is a moment preserved in amber — the hot, damp wind screaming through the open widows, radio blaring the movie version, it should be nasty rockabilly, like Ubangi Stomp or Meat Man, but truth be told I don't remember...I do remember my semi-crazy friend Martin laughing hysterically in the shotgun seat as the big Ford mill roared toward the state line...we were running lights-out, as was the cop car, the bean fields and overgreen creeks nothing but a silvery blur...I hit the Mississippi line about a half mile ahead of the deputy at over 100 miles per hour.

Funny, but when I remember that moment, I see it in black-and-white, and the dashboard of the Cougar looks suspiciously like a '50's vintage tanker...


Frank W. James said...

Michael: Funny, but I remember an magazine interview with Richard Petty years ago where he mentioned THUNDER ROAD and said it was the best movie about "driving" he had ever seen and he had watched it repeatedly.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Anonymous said...

MB--I thought that I was the only young fool who ran top-end lights- out 50 years ago in my red '58 Pontiac tri-power 389--inadequate drum brakes, bias-ply tires, poor springs, sloppy handling, and all!! dmd

Not Available said...

I never drove that fast but my dad did. We had a '57 Ford Crown Vic. couple times a year dad would say "it's time to blow out the engine". I'd watch big-eyed on some back country road as we reached 120 miles per hour.

Dad claimed to transport shine also but no stories of fast pursuits.

Anonymous said...

For me, it was a '58 Merc Turnpike Cruiser - barge of a car, but gas was 33 cents a gallon!

My brother had it well over 100 at night - lights on - out running a tornado-spewing storm. That was his excuse . . .

Anonymous said...

A remake of Thunder Road? Since the 1960s, it is axiomatic that Hollywood hates the South. Film after film depicts the South or Southerners in a negative mode. Examples abound. Given this situation, a remake of Thunder Road will be bobbled badly by the legion of young smarty-pants producers who know little about film and less about the South. They will probably try to insert a comic book superhero into the narrative too because that crap is boffo box office now. Congress needs to mandate no more remakes, sequels, adaptations of comic books (pardon me, I mean "graphic novels"), or updates of old TV shows for twenty years. Then let us see if someone can actually write something new.

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