Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Films: Thunder Road

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".
--The Ballad of Thunder Road, co-written by Robert Mitchum in 1957 with music by Jack Marshall

Personal Note: I'm pretty far from country but I had a feeling of familiarity watching Thunder Road. Here is why:

My parents grew up in Southwest Virginia. My maternal grandparents moved out of the city and across the mountain into the country. To get to the valley where they lived you first had to cross a mountain with so many twists and hairpin turns that my father usually had to stop at least once for me to throw up.  Later I discovered that a bag of pork rinds on the way up settled my stomach. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me now either.

A couple miles down the road was a genuine country store, the real thing and not some manufactured nostalgia impostor.

They lived in a log house (squared logs chinked something like cement) and cooking was with a coal stove. Water was gravity fed from a nearby spring.  Getting to my grandparent's house required careful driving to keep from leaving the oil pan on the rocky, narrow road. There were times when we had to leave our car down at the state road and get to the house in my grandfather's old dodge pickup truck.

During one visit, my father walking on the road and caught a ride. The driver reached under the seat and pulled out a mason jar of clear liquid and offered him a drink. "Skull buster" was the way my father described it with a rueful shake of the his head.

My grandfather tried his hand at making whiskey. He earned a visit from the revenuers who busted up his still. Besides the annoyance of having his still destroyed, he was insulted when they told him that his product wasn't very good.

Another time day a spotter plane observed smoke coming up near the stream behind the house and called it in. Several cars of law enforcement agents soon arrived. Imagine the reaction of armed law enforcement officers when, instead of a still, they found my grandmother making soap in a large black kettle near the creek. My brother related this story during show and tell in elementary school, to my mother's horror.

Thunder Road synopsis: Lucas (Luke) Doolin is back home in Tennessee after a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He resumes his job of transporting the moonshine his daddy makes, driving high powered automobiles fitted with tanks holding several hundred gallons of illegal alcohol.

Luke and the other moonshiners have problems, one old and one new. Their traditional enemy, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, have a new hot shot in charge and he's leading a task force dedicated to eliminating the production of moonshine and to catching Luke. The new enemy is Carl Kogan, a Memphis gangster who wants to control the production and distribution of illegal alcohol. Where the federal agents chase the transporters, Kogan's crew ambush and kill them.

Unwilling to submit to Kogan and with the revenuers finding and destroying their stills, the moonshiners decide to stop production but Luke is bound to make one last run. It turns personal when he finds that Kogan is tricking his younger brother into making a run for him.

Review/Analysis: Thunder Road was filmed around Asheville, NC but set in Tennessee in 1954.

The picture of Mitchum on the poster doesn't have much to do with the movie. He never held a revolver, and an automatic only once. And he certainly didn't have that hunted expression on his face.

Is Thunder Road hillbilly noir as it has been described? Other than being in black and white, dealing with illegal activities, and coming out at the end of the classic film noir period, it would be a real stretch to call it noir. It is a solid classic B movie well deserving the cult status it gained in the southeast. Robert Mitchum's version of The Ballad of Thunder Road, not used in the film, was on Billboard's Hot 100 for a total of 21 weeks. The film has been a steady money-maker.

It starts and ends with a dedication to the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco. This is amusing since the audience's sympathies are with the mountain folk even if they are engaged in illegal activity. Read the full lyrics to the ballad, they are written about a hero:
Roarin' out Harlen revvin' up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland and screamed by Maynordsville
It's hard not to see fighter planes and calvary charges when you hear the song.

Luke's girlfriend, Francine, a Memphis nightclub singer, wants Luke to settle down. Luke where he came from:
[they believed] ...what a man did on his land was his business.

They came here, fought for this country. Scratched up those hills with plows or skinny little mules. The did it to guarantee the basic right of free men. They just figured that whiskey making was one of them. 
I suppose I knew that what he [Luke's daddy] was doing was contrary to someone's law but my granddaddy had done it before him and his daddy before him and so on back to Ireland.
Mitchum plays Luke with his trademark sleepy-eyed indifference, not showing much reaction but the way he carries himself brings a real power to the role. And the film gives some depth to Luke, he isn't just a hillbilly who likes to drive fast. He talks about how the government fetched his country soul out of the valley and sent him off to war. Now
My head is full of so many things. I've been across an ocean, met all the pretty people. I know how to read an expensive restaurant menu. I know what a mobile is.

One of these days I got to fall.
You could call him a tragic figure. He's been changed, he knows that he is probably doomed, but he has to play it out until the end. One of the other moonshiners sums him up saying "he's got a machine gunner's outlook and death doesn't phase him much."

Luke also talks movingly about growing up trailing his daddy up to the still on winter's morning:
I don't remember anything dark or shameful.

I just recollect the dogwood and laurels with little tugs of ice on the ends that snap off clean when you brush by them.
I remember the clear ice on the end of laurels myself.

The driving scenes are well done by the standards of the time. They use rear projection when they show the drivers so the scenery behind the car is flat. The exterior driving shots are still excellent. I read that the production company bought the cars from actual moonshiners who used the money to upgrade. While I never had a fascination with fast cars, I still feel the excitement listening to the deep rumble of the engines.

Thunder Road holds up very well 43 years later. If you are from that part of the South you know why it is still a favorite. If you are not, well, give it a watch and let me know what you think.

Thunder Road shows a little of Appalachian culture so I'm closing with my grandmother's recipe for cornbread. It isn't fancy but it is a recipe that was cooked in a coal stove in a log cabin. My mother got the recipe by measuring the "pinch of this" and the "dash of that" as my grandmother assembled the ingredients The shortening was most likely lard. I use an 8 inch iron skillet that belonged to my paternal grandmother and is well over  a hundred years old.
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (or 4 tablespoons powdered buttermilk in 1 cup water. I put the buttermilk powder in with the other dry ingredients.)
1 egg
1 tablespoon shortening

Combine dry ingredients.
Combine milk (or water) and egg and add to dry ingredients just before putting in the oven.
Heat oven to 450. Put shortening in frying pan and the pan in the oven as it heats so that it melts. I put it in the oven when the temperature is around 350 so it is good an hot and you get a crust on the bottom.. Remove the frying pan and swirl the melted shortening around to coat the bottom and side of frying pan. Cook corn bread for about 20 minutes.

About.coms page on Southern cornbread says that "Northern cornbread use significant amounts of sugar and flour, while Southern cornbreads use very little or none at all." I haven't been able to verify this but I think the small amount of flour in this recipe is because flour was more expensive when my grandmother was learning to cook.