Paul Schrader: Screenwriter Extraordinare

The author of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull discusses cult favourite Rolling Thunder

By Richard Luck, 10 January 2012

Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Light Sleeper, Affliction, The Walker - as directing CVs go, Paul Schrader's is very strong. Even better, however, is Schrader's body of work as a screenwriter. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Bringing Out The Dead - no one else can claim to have written four Martin Scorsese movies. And what movies.

The gems don't end there. Schrader's first script (written with his brother Leonard) was The Yakuza, a story of an American cop fighting crime in Japan, which sold for a then unprecedented $300,000. He also penned the Al Pacino political drama City Hall and Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast, together with the vast majority of the movies he's directed.

And then there's Rolling Thunder, released the year after Taxi Driver came out but dealing with similar subject matter. William Devane (Marathon Man, 24) stars as an air force major returned to the US having spent seven years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. A stranger to his son and estranged from his wife, Devane's homecoming is made more difficult still when, having been presented with a cache of silver dollars by the grateful townsfolk, a band of thugs (led by Quentin Tarantino's acting teacher James Best, aka The Dukes Of Hazzard's Rosco P Coltrane) turns over his gaff, murders his family and stuff Devane's right arm down the garbage disposal. Left for dead, our hero dedicates himself to tracking down the guilty parties. Since it's a nice day, he takes his new girlfriend (the lovely Linda Haynes) with him to do the job while enlisting the help of another traumatised POW played by a positively boyish Tommy Lee Jones.

A favourite film of one Quentin Tarantino (whose short-lived distribution company was named after the movie), Rolling Thunder was directed by John Flynn, who also made the gripping Best Seller and the God awful Out For Justice. It's Paul Scharder's involvement that makes the film particularly interesting, however.

"You could see Rolling Thunder as a more overtly actionful companion piece to Taxi Driver," Schrader said. "The critics seemed keen to dismiss it as 'lightweight' or 'mindless', but Rolling Thunder was able to explore things we didn't touch on in Taxi Driver - the flashbacks to [Devane's] time in captivity, for example. And the scene where Devane ask his wife's new fella to tie him up the way the Viet Cong used to, I don't think that's something you'd get in your standard 'mindless' action movie."

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William Devane

William Devane in Rolling Thunder - By hook or by crook...

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Concluding with a gun fight that is every bit as compelling as Taxi Driver's denouement, Rolling Thunder's content upset everybody from preview audiences to the studio that bankrolled it, 20th Century Fox.

"Fox were so disturbed by the violence," Schrader said. "They'd seen films like Taxi Driver and were aware that motion pictures were moving in that direction, but when they saw what they'd paid for, they couldn't get rid of Rolling Thunder quickly enough."

In the end, the film was picked up by Roger Corman's bargain basement American International Pictures.

As is often the case, what was shocking in 1977 seems relatively tame today. Still, there is one moment in Flynn's film - the aforementioned disposal unit torture sequence - that remains difficult to watch. The incident allowed Paul Schrader to work out the frustrations he feels towards his chosen profession. "I think most writers can identify with the scene where the hand gets mangled by the garbage disposal. Writers are always looking for an excuse to get out of writing. Having your hand hacked off would seem to me the very best excuse of all."

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