Whilst a relatively minor footnote in the Clint Eastwood canon, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is most notable for being the directorial debut of Michael Cimino, renewing his association with Eastwood after having previously worked on the screenplay for the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. Eastwood plays John ‘Thunderbolt’ Doherty, a veteran of the Korean War and bank robber on the run from a motley crew of former associates who are convinced that he has ripped off the proceeds from a robbery they carried out some years before. Having been tracked down by one of the group he literally runs into a young drifter named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), fresh from brazenly stealing a car from under the nose of a cocksure salesman, who conveniently – if accidentally - dispatches Doherty’s would-be assailant in the process. Making good their escape Doherty and Lightfoot partner up and hit the road.
Once established this partnership precipitates such misadventures as scoring the obligatory night in a motel with a couple of young ladies and running into numerous arbitrary and largely redundant oddball characters along the way including a politicised gas station attendant, a certifiable raccoon-loving motorist and a female biker who registers her objections to Lightfoot's attentions with a hammer. Through the course of these encounters they narrowly avoid successive attempts on their lives by the two remaining members of the gang, Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) before Doherty convinces them that the money has never been recovered. Any trace of the loot appears to have vanished as the supposed location of the stashed fortune, an old schoolhouse, has been removed from its original site in order to make way for a modern alternative. In the aftermath of this discovery, whilst initially scorned, Lightfoot’s audacious suggestion that they pull off the same job all over again is put into practice.
With an uneasy rapprochement in place the shaky alliance beds down into a humdrum life in steady jobs as a means of funding the operation, working by day and spending their evenings huddled together in cramped accommodation planning the heist. That tensions run high would not necessarily be a surprise amongst alpha males posturing and chest thumping, however Cimino frames this as more of a bickering family circle than a battle-hardened band of outlaws and outsiders. Of the group only Doherty remains in any way detached from the squabbling but is still prone to fighting Lightfoot's corner when Leary, a humourless boorish thug bristles with sexual frustration and inadequacy in the face of Lightfoot's teasing. As Leary vents spleen about kids lack of belief in 'anything' anymore – ironic given the circumstances – Goody, standing meekly in the background cleaning a shirt, looks every inch the put-upon wife and mother. This is the stuff of kitchen sink dramas rather than hard-boiled crime capers and with such petty discord apparent it is only a matter of time before the best-laid plans go awry.
Based on his own screenplay, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot possesses a number of visual and narrative themes which would persist in Cimino’s films - one of the most striking being his love of American landscapes and wide open spaces. It also showcases what would prove to be Cimino’s ongoing obsession with the challenges facing traditional American values. Using the Montana wilderness as a visual counterpoint, Cimino emphasises the encroaching forces of modernity creating an opposition, eroding concepts of tradition and history within the collective national consciousness. So when Lightfoot asks why the schoolhouse has been removed he is met with Doherty’s blank incomprehension, suggesting that progress in the modern world - whilst still paying lip service to the past - feels no moral duty to justify the sidelining of its culture and traditions.
In direct opposition to this we have the detached and disenfranchised figures of a bygone age. Of the gang of four, three have served their country protecting American values abroad, only to fall on the wrong side of the tracks upon their return to a changing American society. By contrast Lightfoot is a younger man, a product of the competing tensions of consumerism and counterculture but distinct from both as a lone figure disengaged from society. In striking out on his own Lightfoot is not rejecting social life and the family unit - arguably it is the family who have rejected him - so much as the modern values they have come to represent. Having found a kindred spirit in Thunderbolt he seeks to reconstitute an alternative family – albeit more in the spirit of the Wild Bunch than, say, the Waltons – in bringing the old gang back together.
The course of Doherty and Lightfoot’s association is bookended by Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here evoking the changing landscape (literal and metaphorical), broken relationships, alienation and failed hopes and dreams. One could argue that in this particular instance whilst it contains some quieter, more reflective moments and a bittersweet denouement, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is not the film to fully articulate this vision. This is first and foremost Eastwood's movie - as an exploration of Cimino's personal perspective on the state of the nation, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot represents merely a first tentative step to the full realization of an often divisive and incendiary take on America’s past, present and future. As an opening salvo it does not give much clue as to the future direction Cimino was to take, and in tempering its darker excesses with a generally carefree, freewheeling tone it provided scant anticipation of what was to follow.
Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is presented in an aspect ratio of 2:35:1. The image itself is generally very good representing what appears to be an unmolested transfer from the source. Colours look strong and whilst there is a level of grain discernable this is not obtrusive or distracting except during the opening credits beyond which it does not persist.
Audio comes in the form of an LPCM two-channel soundtrack which more than adequately handles what is largely a dialogue driven piece. This release does not contain any special features.