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January 24, 2003

Thunder Road

Friedrich --

Have you caught any movies lately? The other day, I watched Thunder Road, the Robert Mitchum moonshine-running movie, which I hadn't seen since I was a small kid. Have you seen it lately? It's amazingly interesting, and quite moving. The filmmaking's beyond basic and primitive, but the movie has a real dignity. Easy to see why it was a sensation -- it evidently revived Mitchum's career, and it played for years (years!) in the South, where people felt they'd never seen themselves portrayed so accurately on film.

Mitchum was apparently responsible for a lot of this. He was devoted to the movie and its subject matter -- he co-wrote the script, and co-wrote a couple of songs in the movie too. And I'm told he was fanatical about not allowing the hick/hillbilly characters to be made fun of, or cartoon-ified, or put down. He identified, and felt loyalty towards them; though he was born in Connecticut himself, he'd led a layabout, working-class life for years. There was an ethnic loyalty-thing going on too, I seem to remember; he was (I'm pretty sure) of Scotch-Irish descent, which is what most Southern hill people are.

There's much more respect shown for the values, preferences, tastes and behaviors of regional people than you're used to in movies, let alone studio movies of that period. And more grown-up, dark emotioinal values are allowed to be noticed, and to play an active role in setting the action, the scenes and the narrative. Much quirky/awkward/fascinating behavior work by the actors, and by (so it seems) a fair number of locals who were worked into the cast. It's fascinating simply to watch the faces, and to watch these people set their own rhythms. You realize how seldom you run across a movie that allows its characters to be so thoroughly who they are.

"Thunder Road" has a lot of what's terrific about Renoir's "The Southerner," minus the genius. Some might say that, in art, the genius (or lack of it) is everything. Lord knows it can count for a lot. But, judging from "Thunder Road," other qualities, such as dignity, patience, and respect, can count for an awful lot too.



posted by Michael at January 24, 2003


Horrifyingly, I've never seen Thunder Road. However, to respect the memory of my own hillbilly--er, I mean, Scotts Irish--ancestors, I will run out and rent it forthwith.

By the way, you may remember what people in the Revolutionary War era had to say about the Scots-Irish: they kept the commandments of God, and anything else they could get their hands on.

Aren't you a little Scotts Irish yourself?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2003 11:38 AM

Yep. A quarter of so, I think. Did I realize that you have some whiskey -- er, Scots-Irish blood -- in you? The large family once gathered in Western Pennsylvania for a reunion. We found a school and a bridge with our name on them, and a few headstones. The Scotch (Scots? I've heard it both ways) Irish were well-known for whiskey, country music, and being generally kinda anti-government and crabby -- remember the Whiskey Rebellion? I think it was the first uprising against the new American government in the late 1700s. Scotch-Irish, baby.

Hey, a thesis-topic idea for some Film Studies geek: The Scotch-Irish Cinema. It might be a very quick viewing list: "Thunder Road." And what other films? An early Walter Hill or two? Maybe that Jonathan Demme/Corman thing, "Fighting Mad"? There's probably an easy title or two that are escaping me. I could be hallucinating, but I think Buster Keaton was part Scotch-Irish, wasn't he?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 11:55 AM

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