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Director Debut Feature

The ‘Beating’ Heart of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

In a new article series, writers select and discuss great director debuts to explore the possible origins of recurring themes or stylistic approaches that often help to define the uniqueness of these one-of-a-kind filmmakers.

GLOUCESTER: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.

DINO: Like the fella once said: “Ain’t that a kick in the head?”

When you’re young, a teenager, and you see real brutality, it stays with you. And when you see something in the movies that churns your stomach in the same way, it stays with you. Witchfinder General (1968)? The Wild Bunch (1969)? Get Carter? A Clockwork Orange? Straw Dogs (all 1971)? Rollerball (1975)? No – for me, when it comes to violence and the aftereffects, it’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).

Michael Cimino contributed to the screenplay of Magnum Force (1973) and impressed Clint Eastwood enough to bag another Malpaso gig, his first outing as writer-director, a road movie-cum-bank raid caper with a melancholy finale that once seen at an impressionable age can never be forgotten.

Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are the titular characters, teaming up with Thunderbolt’s old vault-busting “buddies”, Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie Goody (Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis), to replay a heist that first time round garnered a cool half million. Their heavy-duty weapon of choice, an armour-piercing cannon, displayed in the poster art, is even more phallically preposterous than Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum, “the most powerful hand-gun in the world”.

©1974 The Malpaso Company

From the opening shot, under the titles, the handsome, iconic landscapes grab the attention – a wheat field, sparse trees, something of a foreboding sky (Montana is “Big Sky Country”, after all), a remote church house completing the tableaux. T&L points the way ahead to a fascinating, mercurial, often quixotic Cimino canon. The rest, as they say, is history – primarily his version of the Vietnam War experience (1978’s The Deer Hunter – a really terrific all-round picture) and the Johnson County War’s significance (1980’s Heaven’s Gate – yes, I do happen to agree it’s an under-rated near-masterpiece). Bold but not always magic Mike went on to prove himself a fearless, resolutely American film-maker, examining what it felt like to chase The Dream, what it felt like to be proud of it, what it felt like to be ashamed of it (and many, many shades of red, white, blue and grey in between).

In Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, he contrasts the “Big Sky” exteriors with the gang’s other natural habitat – pool halls, diners, trailer parks, drive-ins. With a song by Paul (Phantom Of The Paradise) Williams and a supporting cast including Gary Busey, Catherine (Daisy Duke) Bach and Bill (Deliverance) McKinney – the latter providing a suitably feral cameo, destined to be referenced by Father Ted, no less – we know for sure this is the 1970s. The humour is largely bad taste and the “heroes” decidedly “anti-”, while Cimino finds time to consider how poems can be mistaken for prayers and prayers mistaken for poems.

©1974 The Malpaso Company

Eastwood, as a hair-slicked-down, bespectacled, obviously bogus reverend, delivers the picture’s first words: “Remember that we are all imperfect.” His unlikely pastor adds: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” [Cut To] Lightfoot – The Kid – whose conflict with Leary – the wolf, the leopard? – ultimately makes the film so queasily unforgettable.

The kick in the head we are dealing with reminds me of my very own schooldays, terrorised in the “playground”, where a boot to the skull, sometimes straight in the face or right behind the ear, was as commonplace as bloody teeth scattered in the sports hall.

Many of my school “mates”, naturally violent scene stealers and keen cinemagoers, were fans of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – often seen as a double-bill with Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force, Enter The Dragon (1973), Death Wish (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) etc etc. Its popularity among this particularly dysfunctional student menagerie was largely due to the moment when Red tells a smart-mouth kid at a Frosty ice-cream cart to: “Go fuck a duck.”

Pure poetry.

There was also: “Raccoon shit,” another oft-repeated T&L line that those guys, the head-kickers, found simply hilarious. When it came to ’70s movie quotes, Dirty Harry’s: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” routine was too highfalutin and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s (1975): “Well, I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that!” surely meant you were putting too much effort into classes and therefore deserved to DIE.

I also remember the “Godfather shoes” – black and white brogues with added segs that could cut faces to shreds. This natty footwear became popular after one guy, the son of someone who read books, passed round a paperback copy of the Puzo novel which included a section of stills from the film – Luca Brasi garrotted, Sonny riddled on the causeway, Sollozzo and McCluskey’s blood and brains all over the place (after the Godfather shoes led the merry dance in the playground, I was often left wondering how Brasi, Sonny, Sollozzo and McCluskey got off so easy).

Me? At school? I kept my head down, especially when running the gauntlet, like Hawkeye in The Last Of The Mohicans (“Are you Indian?” Lightfoot is asked. “No, just American,” he replies). Bridges’ Lightfoot is a cocksure, grinning, cream-faced loon, hyperactive but streetsmart. His nemesis is Big Foot – ie Red, a shambling, unkempt, cumbersome disaster of a human being, with a grotesque ginger combover and a horrible afterthought of a sinisterly-thin moustache.

If you were being cruel, you would describe Kennedy as a low-rent alternative to Gene Hackman. But I often liked the guy who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967), and the big man was no disaster in Earthquake or Airport, or any of the sequels. I even laughed at him in Naked Gun and the rest – but Red Leary, I could never abide. Who could? He was the kind of person who would kill a dog just for barking. Did he have any excuses for being who or what he was? There is some talk about the Korean War. “Leary” sums him up – leery and/ or “lairy”. Kennedy inhabits the role, makes Red authentically seedy but somehow larger than life.

©1974 The Malpaso Company

Once the bank job is done and things inevitably go pear-shaped, Red gets the drop on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and the Dino moment comes – not as painfully protracted or stompingly bloody as Billy Batts’ moment of gory in GoodFellas. But I was at an impressionable age, and so glad when Leary received his comeuppance (spoiler alert – it involves a Terminator guard dog with a taste for Red meat).

After Red’s beating of him, Lightfoot’s injuries lead to a gradual physical and mental deterioration towards death, like watching a time-lapse recording of a pitifully disassembled scarecrow dwindling away to windswept nothingness. Blindness, paralysis, no little cause and big palsy.

When Thunderbolt pulls the car over and realises Lightfoot has gone, he slips on his shades to hide his grief and suddenly, in a cinematic flood of emotion, the scene always reminds me of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), when Bond (George Lazenby) says of his newly-married Tracy (Diana Rigg): “She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world …”
(*Don’t tell the guys in the playground about that quote).

©1974 The Malpaso Company

MACBETH: … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Enter a Messenger). Thou comest to use thy tongue – thy story quickly.

MESSENGER: Go fuck a duck. They’ve got the wood on you – you murdering bastard.

By Callum Reid

has reviewed film since 1989 and a Tuesday morning press screening of Andrew Davis' The Package. Since then he has watched a number of better movies, and a few worse.