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1. A Typical Revenge Film By 1977, Paul Schrader's reputation as a writer of violent and original screenplays was assured with his first script, "The Yakuza" (1974, Sydney Lumet, Warner Bros.), selling for the highest amount any spec script had up to that time (Kouvaros, 17) and then the success of "Taxi Driver" (1976, Martin Scorsese, Columbia Pictures), which was subsequently nominated for the Golden Globe and WGA writing awards. In the next four years Schrader's name was credited on seven screenplays in a flurry of activity that would slow only as he began to direct in the late '70s. Among these scripts was "Rolling Thunder," produced in 1977 and directed by John Flynn and co-written with Heywood Gould. "Rolling Thunder" is easily mistaken as a knock-off of the earlier and critically acclaimed "Taxi Driver" - it also concerns a Vietnam vet, out of sorts socially and culturally on his return to the States and unable to acclimate. After being victimized by criminals thugs and unable to shake the feelings of being disrespected and a general sense of impotence, he resorts to violence, ultimately storming a building where his tormentors are hiding with an arsenal of guns and killing them in a blood-soaked orgy, one by one as he moves through the rooms.
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms
"Rolling Thunder"'s poster advertised the film as "Another shattering experience from the author of 'Taxi Driver.'" The film was released by AIP as a typical revenge action film, an "us vs. them" morality tale without suggestion of the existential dread of "Taxi Driver"'s Travis Bickle, a more conventional version of the returning Vietnam hero getting revenge. The main protagonist, Major Charles Rane, played by a William Devane, crosses the border into Mexico (with a wartime buddy) to find and kill the bad guys who broke into his house, stole his money, maimed him by pushing his hand into a garbage disposal, and killed his wife and son. The climactic violent shootout resonates seamlessly with end of "Taxi Driver" - an advance through limited spaces in a residential hotel serving as a den of iniquity (a literal whorehouse in "Rolling Thunder"'s case), through hallways and rooms dispatching antagonists one by one. The protagonists in both films are positioned as middle class working men forced to fight against the scum of the earth. "Rolling Thunder" makes the exploitation grindhouse roots of "Taxi Driver" much clearer. While that narrative momentum is unambiguous, it is couched in a subtle but haunting subtext of Rane's larger disenchantment and society's inability to recognize or address what he symbolizes and what he's done. He is also lashing out at the changing times and unclear morals, out of sorts and out of time in his own home community. An auteurist reading of the scripts may explain the similarities. Schrader has continued to explore similar themes throughout his career. But while "Rolling Thunder" may be dismissed as a reactionary reconstruction of Travis Bickle's unmoored character without the existential subtext or moral ambiguity of his actions, the original concept was much
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms closer to "Taxi Driver." "Rolling Thunder" is not uninflected with politics. Rane was also conceived as a vengeful pathological loner, and traces remain in the final version. The differences in the films can be attributed to production and institutional contingencies, to the differences of temperaments between the directors John Flynn and
Martin Scorsese, and to some late-stage input of Heywood Gould on "Rolling Thunder"'s shooting script. The original interrogation of violence as an appropriate response, particularly when committed by someone "trained" by the government to kill in another land, remains embedded in the subtext of "Rolling Thunder," and charges it with an emotional power all its own. 2. Main Characters The discomfort we feel about the violence perpetrated in "Taxi Driver" resides in large part with how we respond to Travis Bickle, the main character portrayed by Robert De Niro. Bickle in his voice-over narration declares himself "God's lonely man," a loner socially and culturally disconnected from the world in which he vainly attempts to connect with and find or create a higher meaning. The exact reasons for his disenfranchisement with the rest of society are not explicitly portrayed, and are alluded to and exist only subtexturally. We suspect Bickle's awkwardness in social situations is at least partially responsible, and he doesn't articulate what's been missed or missing from his life. He can't. He eventually lashes out against antagonists who are more symbolic than actual agents of his unhappiness (an unobtainable woman (Betsy), a politician (Palantine), an underage
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms prostitute (Iris), and finally a pimp (Sport)). They represent who he isn't. He can't
achieve what he sees they seem to have, a kind of social or cultural currency or relevance - regardless of their respective classes - within the city's inner community. A place of belonging. "Rolling Thunder"'s Major Rane is not as existentially conflicted. He's also a returning war hero, and it's the passage of 7 years in which was tortured as a P.O.W. that haunts him, and gives his status as worthy protagonist and adversary its authenticity. His memories of the torture are displayed in the film in blunt b&w flashbacks and he has pointed discussions of what's changed in the intervening years. This grounds his observations and experiences as meaningful, and defines him as someone recognizing the lack of, and perhaps able to return to, a sense of normalcy. What bothers him is explicated. In his absence his wife has become engaged to another man, Cliff, who has taught his son how to play sports and shoot firearms - classically paternal responsibilities Rane hasn’t fulfilled. His son doesn’t remember him anymore. The gifts of a new red Buick convertible and $2555 in silver dollars (one for each day in captivity) are sincere but ironic, material and empty of meaning in the unfamiliar world where Rane finds himself unable to belong anymore. When the four men (specifically Mexicans from across the Texas border) enter his home to steal the coins and kill his family in front of him, Rane is presented with an unambiguous choice to choose violent means to lash out against his tormenters, personified by foreigners who are murderers and thieves, without the baggage of having to learn how to continue to be a good father, husband, or even a citizen. His severing
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms
from society happens in front of us. The final showdown happens on foreign soil, across the border, away from "civilization." Bickle's final violent onslaught, by contrast, is narratively under-motivated and reads finally as a misplaced and misguided attempt to seek resolution, saving someone (Iris) who doesn't express the desire to be saved. The aftermath is redemptive in a purely ironic register, elevating Bickle to community hero in spite of his intentions. Rane's final journey is motivated by narrative events specifically as an act of justice against the individuals who have victimized him. His actions are understandable, if extreme, and can be taken at face value. His singular attempt is only undermined by the knowledge that it will not restore the normalcy that the robbery rendered forever out of reach. Bickle has lost his soul. His journey is interior and undirected. His retribution against Sport and rescue of Iris is circumstantial and tragic as a random articulation of an unknowable and larger imbalance in his universe, and in the film's. Rane's journey is causal and linear and defined by the events of the text. The sense that order has been restored is palatable at the end. That both protagonists arm themselves and engage in killing sprees ties the films together narratively and structurally, but our response to each text is different. The protagonists are positioned differently in relation to what they are faced with and what their philosophical outlooks and options are. "Rolling Thunder," by motivating its protagonist as a goal-directed vigilante, creates a different and more confused ideological construct that is ultimately in conflict with its own forward drive to portray Rane's resolution. 3. Starting Points
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms "Taxi Driver" and "Rolling Thunder" both have thematic resonance to John Ford's "The
Searchers" (1956), particularly in reference to the journey into foreign territory to right a moral wrong and to restore a sense of innocence that ultimately may already be lost. A similar journey had been explored as recently as 1971 in Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (1971); in that film Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) protects his home and wife from being violated, both of which already have been, from thugs who wish to murder a refugee hidden by Sumner who is actually guilty of the crime he's accused of. This narrative manifestation of a journey into a morally ambiguous landscape, figurative of a moral as well as physical hell, is a favored technique of Schrader's. "Taxi Driver"'s initial inspiration was Jean-Paul Sartre's "Nausea" and other French existentialist writing (Jackson and Schrader, 116). Sartre's novel (first published in 1938) describes the malaise of city living without meaning or higher purpose. The setting of the streets of New York informs and defines the film's moral decay, and Bickle's previous experiences in Vietnam are never seen or heard about. We can't visualize any specifics, and may suspect if it's the city environment that has made him anti-social. In "Rolling Thunder," Rane's heroic deeds and tendencies are never challenged or undermined - his past POW experiences are visualized for us in stark flashbacks. Yet, society's response to Rane's return is tinged with a sense of discomfort, ambiguity and lack of satisfying closure. The greeting and ceremony at the airport for Rane and his friend Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) are polite but perfunctory. What they really want their old family lives - is not available. The cavalier attitudes of the thieves looking for Rane's silver dollars further demonstrate a disregard for what he symbolizes. When they push his hand into a garbage disposal, he remains silent, masochistically allowing it to
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms happen. While the disfigurement plays initially as a demonstration of will, his son soon thereafter becomes a captive and quickly reveals where the coins are kept, making his
stoic resistance futile. Rane groans, incapacitated, while one of the thieves asks, "Why'd you go through all that shit for nothing?" The leader scowls: "I'll tell you why - because he's a macho motherfucker." The loss of a hand is a classic symbol of castration, and Rane watches impotently as the criminals kill his wife and son, then shoot and leave him for dead, taking everything he had and hoped to have. While "Taxi Driver" is positioned as more interested in the meditation on the psychological state of the protagonist, its construction parallels "Rolling Thunder." In both films the protagonists make an initial excursion with intent to do violence, which is thwarted. Bickle come close to assassinating the candidate Palantine, while Rane travels over the border to find Fat Ed and get more information. Later Bickle will turn his murderous and suicidal on the apartment house where Iris is kept, while Rane will return to Mexico with his friend Vohden to kill the thieves in a brothel. Rane is accompanied on his initial excursion over the border by Linda (Linda Forchet), the groupie who wore his POW bracelet while he was away. Twice he lets her walk into a potentially dangerous situation unarmed and only minutes later enters to confront who she's found. He either doesn't care about her welfare, or knows he can quickly come in to protect her should things go wrong. He inadvertently finds one of the men surrounded by his friends in a bar, and is beaten up before retreating and regrouping.
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms Bickle also commits his first actual act of violence almost accidentally, shooting a black man robbing a liquor store, an event that presents him with a new set of unrealized
options. Rane tests his intentions and his limitations, and we realize how bloodthirsty he can/will be, particularly when he uses the sharpened hook on his stump as a weapon. Both main characters find violence is a release, and as finally the only way to fight what they consider evil forces. "Rolling Thunder" explicates those forces with names like Fat Ed, Automatic Slim, TBird, and Melio. He remembers them. "Taxi Driver" has no villains targeting Bickle as such. The forces in the world Bickle inhabits are incoherent, contradictory, and ultimately unknowable. His main tormentor is his own existence, and his final sojourn to the brothel is suicidal, likely to end his own life. He expects to die, and when the police aim their revolvers at him in the aftermath, he puts his bloody finger to his head, figuratively shooting himself with a final bullet he doesn't have. Rane himself notes in the car with Linda while in Mexico, "I remember that song from when I was alive." Rane also considers himself no longer among the living. 4. Response to Tragedy Rane and Bickle and are positioned differently in terms of character and narrative authenticity. They respond differently to the stresses around them. Bickle is a tense and distracted loner, wandering the streets by car and on foot, often composed alone within the frame, observing what's around him. Bickle's ramblings and faux philosophical musings written in his diary serve as the film's narration, and he shares his doubts with those around him, particularly with Wizard (Peter Boyle), who serves as a kind of elder
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms statesman of the taxi trade. The famous scene played to a mirror in which he repeats "You talking to me?" illustrates a self-fulfilling descent into madness by constant focusing inward.
Rane is presented as no less intense by the teeth-clenched Devane. But he is soft-spoken and even in tone, choosing his words carefully, always keeping his thoughts close to his chest. We do not know his inner monolog - there is no narration or philosophical discussions in the film. He is the calming influence for his buddy Vohden, who expresses doubts. In the hospital Cliff asks Rane if he remembers anything about the thieves, and he says no, but by that point we suspect he remembers it all clearly. When Rane comes back to his home after the hospital, it is dark and sterile, cleaned up. The house is terminally underlit, even during the first conversation with Rane's wife in which he discovers she's engaged to Cliff. Rane keeps his sunglasses on, shutting out what little light remains as he sets up a mini-workbench on his kitchen table and sharpens his hook that's replaced his missing hand. The hook is a strong metaphor for the weapon he is waiting to become. Rane wasn't always such a clearly drawn weapon of revenge. In Schrader's original, Rane came home a hero without having fired a bullet in Vietnam. His guilt over being decorated without "deserving it" translated to a pathological hatred of the Mexicans in his community, a racist response to the foreign enemy he'd never encountered in war. His resultant rage was coded as a reaction to his own reduced sense of self-worth, and when he crosses the border to find the thugs who killed his wife, his intentions were designed to resonate with the US's imperial involvement in Vietnam (Jackson and Schrader, 121).
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms The producers brought in Heywood Gould, a television writer who would later write
"Fort Apache The Bronx" (1981, Daniel Petrie, 20th Century Film Corp.) and "Cocktail" (1988, Roger Donaldson, Buena Vista Pictures), just before production to take out the racism and give Rane a more motivated character arc. Gould reports his changes had to do with the secondary characters and making the anti-hero into more of a hero (Nilsen). Gould added a scene in which Rane demonstrates to Cliff how he was tied up by his captors, which demonstrated a tendency towards sado-masochistic behavior. Gould also expanded Linda's role as a sympathetic woman figure to Rane's otherwise emotionally closed-off loner. These additions of Rane's backstory balances out his ultimate violent retribution against a potentially healthy future had Rane made different choices. Schrader goes on record as saying these changes were a Hollywood sell-out, changing his film from one about fascists to one that was fascist itself (Jackson and Schrader, 121). The original would have hewn much more closely to "Taxi Driver," foregrounding the protagonist as pathologically aberrant who goes after the "wrong" people for the wrong reasons.1 5. Closed Rooms The endings of both films are claustrophobic battles within a series of rooms with excessive amount of bloodshed. Each battle is pre-meditated, and while entered into with the revenge motive, they are also at their core desperate attempts at reclaiming each protagonist's sense of worth. The climactic action sequence evokes the final doomed shoot-out from "The Wild Bunch" (1969, Sam Peckinpah, Warner Bros.) in which the group of soldiers takes on impossible odds in a suicidal display of honor in Mexico.
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms The progress through the rooms at the end of each film is linear and schematic - "Taxi Driver" goes so far as to "publish" the map in the form of a diagram in the newspaper
article taped on a wall in the ending montage. These endings require the main characters to battle through a series of rooms with guns blazing, dispatching villains as the prize, whether it be the rescue of a person or total annihilation of the enemy, gets closer. In Schrader's "The Yakuza" previously and "Hardcore" after, this physical journey through various levels is manifested like a series of puzzle boxes within each other. In "The Yakuza" Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) join forces with Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) to break into and literally through the paper walls at the Yakuza's hideout to get the girl who's been kidnapped. Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott) in "Hardcore" breaks through the ramshackle walls of a brothel, each room decorated in a different color and motif, looking for his daughter. The effect is of going deeper through the levels of Dante's Purgatory, and it explicates the physical descent into a more personal hellish landscape. Schrader's protagonists travel through a gauntlet of moral confusion, figuratively and finally literally. Both protagonists survive their suicidal missions. "Taxi Driver"'s lush romantic musical score after Bickle drops off Betsy changes into a dark and foreboding sting that fills the last moments with foreboding. In the last moments of "Rolling Thunder" Rane and Vohden walk out of the brothel, but the camera stays inside not following, any hope of narrative closure abandoned. This ambiguous ending fails to address the aftermath of the bloodbath, or whether or not Rane has found peace, let alone real redemption.
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Both these murderous rampages are ultimately hollow victories; small battles in a larger war that each character has already lost. The stubborn nature of Rane and the matter-of-fact resolution reveal the film's original conceits. It remains an investigation into a flawed mind-set and as it follows Rane to the unavoidable bloodbath, in spite of Cliff's best efforts to find him and Linda's pleas to give it up, it becomes an indictment of characters unable to engage any other method besides violent revenge as a means towards redemption. "Taxi Driver"'s ambiguous and contrary "triumph" fits perfectly with "Rolling Thunder"'s interrupted closure. The balance of the script in which Rane is positioned as heroic, focused and motivated in seeking justice, which attempts to justify him, is in direct conflict with the script's subtext of Rane's inability to find respect or comfort after returning home, and his near psychotic insistence on a violent resolution to his traumas. This conflict underlines the plight of returning vets during the 1970s, and frames Rane's eventual crusade in a more ambiguous perspective. The genre tropes imposed on Schrader's original conception make "Rolling Thunder" a more problematic and conflicted statement. "Rolling Thunder" confronts the anti-war subtext that "Taxi Driver" takes for granted and challenges, not entirely intentionally, our responses to an otherwise simple tale of revenge. Rather than dismissing "Rolling Thunder" as just another revenge flick, it stands quite apart from similar post-Vietnam films of a more jingoistic outlook of the 1980s era of "First Blood" (1982, Ted Kotcheff, Orion Pictures) and the "Death Wish"
Brown ‐ Schrader: Gunfire in Closed Rooms sequels (1982, 1985, 1987, and 1994) in which vengeful "common" men mete out cathartic justice simply, honorably, and with no moral strings attached.
films are populated with delusional or deluded reactionaries (Travis Bickle, George C. Scott in "Hardcore" (1979), Mishima, Christopher Walken in "The Comfort of Strangers" (1990)). Even later works not based on original material, such as "The Mosquito Coast" (1986, Peter Weir, Warner Bros.) and "Auto-Focus" (2002, Schrader, Sony Pictures) suggest a fascination with the darkest corners of even the most wellintentioned people's obsessions.
--- --- --BIBIOGRAPHY Biskind, Peter. 1998. Easy riders, raging bulls: how the sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll generation saved Hollywood. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. Jackson, Kevin, ed. and Paul Schrader. 2004. Schrader on Schrader and other writings. Revised edition. London: Faber and Faber Limited. Macnab, G.C. 2009. "Schrader, Paul." International dictionary of films and filmmakers. Encyclopedia.com. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406801403.html Nilsen, Lars. "Heywood Gould on ROLLING THUNDER." Alamo weird wednesday blog. July 17, 2008. http://alamoweirdwednesday.blogspot.com/2008/07/heywoodgould-on-rolling-thunder.html Simon, Alex. 2005. "Paul Schrader: dominion of the dark." Venice magazine. November.
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