Thursday, 5 July 2012

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Dir. Michael Cimino
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis 

The service in a small wooden Montana church is interrupted when a man enters and starts taking pot shots at the preacher. The preacher flees. Meanwhile a young man in leather trousers screeches out of a car lot in a Pontiac TransAm, the owner left behind in a cloud of dust. By chance the TransAm just happens to pass by at the right time for the preacher man to catch a lift. And thus meet Thunderbolt and Lightfoot! 

That preacher is no holyman. He is the bank robber known as The Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood, appearing in this list for the second time on screen after The Bridges of Madison County). He is laying low from the ex-partners who believe that he betrayed them after their last big job. His rescuer is a roguish young drifter by the name of Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). They become friends and try to keep one step ahead of Thunderbolt’s pursuers, Red (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis, seen over twenty years later as the fly-keeping Luther in Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). When the four finally meet up Lightfoot proposes they recreate their last job, taking out the vault of Montana Armored in exactly the same way: using a 20mm anti-tank cannon with armour-piercing shells. 

"Do ya feel lucky punk? Well... do ya...?"

I was half wondering where the film was going. It takes thirty minutes for Clint, sorry, I mean Thunderbolt, to tell Lightfoot his history. Until that point they were driving around, stealing cars, picking up girls, and trying to keep one step ahead of Red. Thunderbolt even says at one point that when you can’t think of anything to do, just keep on moving. And that’s what I thought this was – a buddy road movie, with the heroes moving through a dusty Wild West landscape populated by girls with peachy asses and crazy drivers with cars filled with white rabbits and raccoons. Thereafter it becomes a more conventional heist movie as the reserved Thunderbolt and high-spirited Lightfoot are brought into an alliance of convenience with the bad-tempered Red and the gormless Goody. 

So what does it have in its favour? The heist is well executed – lots of shots of ticking watches as they synchronise their actions. Bridges is infectious fun, despite his character’s habit of talking in clichés and his really annoying laugh; he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. I’m not really sure I can see why if I’m honest. But then again Fred Astaire was also nominated for his role in The Towering Inferno that year, so it probably says something about the calibre of performances in 1974 (it’s okay, don’t worry, the other three Best Supporting Actor nominations all went to The Godfather Part II, with Robert DeNiro taking home the trophy). But what might have been seen as a successful movie is just lacking a bit of excitement through modern-day eyes. When one considers the number of car chases in the film, there are very few memorable moments from them. When one compares the sort of thing one might see in Bond, Bourne or Ronin this movie just gives us cars driving after each other. Overall there is not enough meat on the bones for a real meal. 

What have I learnt about Montana?
Action in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot keeps moving between the cities and the countryside. The cities are seen by night, seedy and neon-lit. We then move out to well-tended suburbs. And then there is the great outdoors. Miles of nothing (except for the occasional wooden church, stranded among the wheat-fields, where the congregation tie up their horses outside). Roads dip and twist across the landscape, cars throwing up clouds of dust in their wake. Montana is a land of hills and lakes once you get away from civilisation. 

The police are armed and dangerous. Certainly they respond to bank robberies by shooting first and asking questions later. 

Can we go there?
There was a moment when I found myself cursing. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot had been cruising around the west for a while before Thunderbolt asks where they are. The answer: Hells Canyon. On the Snake River. On the western border of Idaho. Bollocks. 

Thankfully their sojourn in Idaho is short-lived. They are soon back in Montana to knock off the depot of the Montana Armored. They walk past the Chouteau County Bank in Fort Benton to drink beers by the river. They head up to Warsaw to try and find the old one-room schoolhouse where the original haul was stashed.  

The film was shot on location around Great Falls. Thunderbolt disguises himself as a preacher at St John’s Lutheran Church in Hobson, south-east of Great Falls (sadly it is no longer there). Lightfoot steals his first car in Choteau. They go via Sun Canyon Road to Diversion Lake near Augusta. In the film they catch the ‘Idaho Dream’ down the Snake River; in reality the boat was the Sacajawea 2, moored at Gates of the Mountains Marina in Helena. The bar and telegraph office were in Great Falls. Lightfoot met a hammer-wielding motorcycle girl on Ulm Bridge. Red finds out just how vicious the department store guard dogs are at in Fort Benton. The old one-room schoolhouse (when they finally find it) is south of Great Falls on Interstate 15 near exit 240. 

Overall Rating: 2/5


  1. The department store with the guard dogs was on Central Avenue in Great Falls. It was the old Paris, which later became the Bon Marche, and more recently the NEW building, and now Asurion.

  2. The department store with the guard dogs was on Central Avenue in Great Falls. It was the old Paris, which later became the Bon Marche, and more recently the NEW building, and now Asurion.