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Gunfire In Closed Rooms:

Paul Schrader's "Rolling Thunder" and "Taxi Driver"

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.


"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

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


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


"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

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

"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

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.


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, T-

Bird, 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

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).

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


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.


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.

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"

sequels (1982, 1985, 1987, and 1994) in which vengeful "common" men mete out

cathartic justice simply, honorably, and with no moral strings attached.

Schrader'sfilms 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 well-
intentioned people's obsessions.

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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.
Nilsen, Lars. "Heywood Gould on ROLLING THUNDER." Alamo weird wednesday
blog. July 17, 2008.
Simon, Alex. 2005. "Paul Schrader: dominion of the dark." Venice magazine. November.