Michael Cimino: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – A Look Back

Geoffrey Lewis, Eastwood, George Kennedy, Jeff Bridges

The announcement of Michael Cimino’s death today at age 77 was a shock and it allowed for amount of reflection at the career that began so well and ended so badly. So it seems fitting to look back at the film that started it all for Michael Cimino; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot could be called a “Drive In” film. It was at a drive in that I saw it, aged 17, nearly two years after the film’s release.  Despite UA and their poor marketing of the film, and the fact that Bridges effectively stole the film from Eastwood, I fell in love with the story and the ending was the first one to ever make me cry.

Not so much a crime/comedy film, TaL was a buddy movie. A May-December bromance between Eastwood’s laconic former thief and the young conman played by Bridges. Thunderbolt was a man who turned his back on crime and Lightfoot was a young man in love with it.

The two meet up when  former colleagues of Thunderbolt turn up to extract their pound of flesh from their partner who they believe cheated them out of money from a big heist.

George Kennedy was the asthmatic bad man with anger management issues and poor self image; Red Leary.Geoffrey Lewis was Eddie Goody and as his name implies Eddie was the nicer of the two men.

The film was one of Eastwood’s least favorites according to author Marc Elliot in his 2010 biographical tome on the entertainer.  It is maintained that Clint felt, quite rightly, that UA let the side down in terms of marketing and that Bridges stole the film.  It does not mention that both Lewis and specifically Kennedy overshadowed the underplaying Eastwood.

As mentioned by other critics the film looked at the male dynamic, as a group, and focussed on the camaraderie of men in general.  But Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is also a combination coming of age film and a romance (bromance). It is also a blackly comic tragedy where the optimistic partnership goes pear shaped at the end.

Ironically it was Eastwood who insisted that Cimino direct his script. Clint initially wanted to helm the picture but decided to let Michael take the lead. While not overly successful, the film did finish number 18 on the list of top grossing films of 1974.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot garnered one Oscar nomination for Bridges and went on to become a cult favorite. Cimino then went on to write and direct the 1978  Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter.  The Vietnam themed feature  took in five of the little golden men.

(Christopher Walken took home the Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of the doomed Nick.)

Then came Heaven’s Gate. The film that killed UA (United Artists) and stopped Cimino’s rise as the new wunderkind in town.  The “auteur” overspent on the production by millions and according to Steven Bach in Final Cut it was a fiasco of epic proportions. I have read the book and Bach clearly  believes that  in terms of disastrous filmmaking Heaven’s Gate was the perfect storm.

The film flopped and Cimino was essentially finished. He directed four more feature length films and one short film segment in 2007. The writer and director’s career died way before he did.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot feels like drive in fare. It  was a “B” movie out of the gate. Regardless of the requisite nudity and boob shots however the film managed to impress. It is evocative of all those ’70s crime movies yet different because it was all about the Bridges and Eastwood characters bonding and falling in love and becoming a team. The two were spiritual brothers by the end of the film and it was brilliant.

Watching the film at the 62 Drive In outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, I fell in love with Bridges as a performer and was enthralled by his “brain damaged” performance. Kennedy proved that he could still be a nasty bit of work as a bad man and Lewis was brilliant. The film also featured Gary Busey, a childhood favorite from when he was Gailard Sartain’s right hand man on the Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi creature feature show from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also had a young Catherine Bach who would later become Daisy Duke on television.

More than anything else, the film showed that Cimino had that touch. The ability to tell a story that sang, even if it was about a bunch of thieves who had no honor amongst themselves.  It was a great start that peaked with The Deer Hunter and expired with Heaven’s Gate.

Ironically Heaven’s Gate is now considered almost a classic.

Rest In Peace Michael Cimino. An auteur whose career never reached the meteoric heights it could have all because of a western that killed a studio.

Michael Cimino

The Horror Genre: Ya Gotta Love It…

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I’ve been a fan of the horror genre ever since I got permission to stay up and watch The Birds on television at the ripe old age of ten. After getting scared so badly that after the film had finished I locked myself into the bathroom and refused to come out, I knew that anything that could affect me that much had to be a winner.

My father was completely puzzled at my bizarre behaviour, obviously forgetting all the nightmares I’d had when I was younger that had him and my mother galloping into my bedroom after my screams had disturbed their slumber. He and my mother were good parents who always explained that things in movies were not real but my Boeing 767 imagination knew otherwise and all the scary things I’d watched would visit me on a nightly basis.

I started sneaking down around midnight on the weekends to watch the local TV stations Hammer Horror Fest that they aired each weekend. *Local station? Huh! The closest station was one state away in Oklahoma. The home of  The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting with Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa Pomazoidi who did skits between commercial breaks and featured, among other guests, a young Gary Busey. Although I did not discover Mazeepa’s “madhouse” till much later, his show made me laugh and cringe at the same time.*

**If you’ve never heard of The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting click on the link preceding and read John Wooley‘s visit down memory lane as he talks about the show.**

Films were not the only medium that I adored in the horror mode. I found great collections of short stories and anthologies of stories that scared the living crap out of me. One such story was H. Russell Wakefield‘s 1928 short story The Red Lodge. It’s the story of a city fellow and his wife who move to the country and rent this riverside home and it scared me silly. This book gave me an aversion to looking out windows by means of opening the shut curtains. Combined with my Twilight Zone experience with Bill Shatner and the occupants of Red Lodge, it’s a wonder that I can look out windows at all.

Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa. Ah childhood memories...
Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa. Ah childhood memories…

I have fond memories (and sometimes still have nightmares) about those Saturday night “creature features” and the books that helped me develop an insatiable taste for all things abnormal, scary and freakish; in other words horror.

I also remember rolling about the floor in hysterical laughter at a mates house while watching a Roger Corman-ish type film where these radioactive giant frog/men things that came out of a contaminated lake and killed local bikini clad beauties. *At one point in the film, one of these frog things shoves his hand through a plate-glass window trying to grab a mannikin, it’s arm gets cut off and what are supposed to be maggots fall out of his stump. The fact that is was obviously rice, made the scene funnier. Come to think of it, this might have been a Corman flick, I just cannot remember the title of it to verify if it is or not.*

I guess I am a lot more forgiving about horror films that other people feel derisory about. I’ve had a life long love affair with these creative geniuses and “not-so-creative” geniuses who make the films that make you want to scream; either in fear or frustration. Because, damn it, they’ve tried.

I know that horror films are the burgeoning directors first port of call when he or she is just starting out. I also know that a lot of “unknown” actors will be in the thing and that a lot of ex-stars might make the odd cameo, but…

I can still remember laughing and screaming in equal measure at Evil Dead at the drive-in. Evil Dead 2 was even better! The eye scene had us laughing, screaming and gagging all at the same time. I’ve seen other films that can equal that reaction, but not too many.

Still, I am most forgiving when it comes to films “copying” other more successful films, which in all likelihood are homages. Too many folks will poop all over a new horror film because it “borrows” from other films. But honestly? When was the last time you saw something so blazingly original that you couldn’t find a comparable film anywhere?

Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h...
Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h…

For me, it was The Grudge. That was the first film that I had seen in years that was: a) Great, b)original, and c) scared the crap out of me. Of course, I am talking about the American re-make with Sarah Michelle Gellar directed by Takeshi Shimzu. I only found out later that this was his fourth version of a film that he’d made over and over. So in essence the film was not “original” at all. It borrowed from the earlier versions of the film and Shimzu just kept “tweaking” the scenes until they were scary as hell.

I’ve written a few reviews recently that some people have not necessarily agreed with and that is great. Variety is the spice of life and we all have opinions (a childhood friend once told me, “Opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one.” Another friend quickly added on, “And some are bigger than others.)

Back to the reviews, I never go into a horror film (or any film for that matter) with a “preconceived” idea of what I am going to watch. I concentrate on suspending my disbelief and try to get carried away with the film’s story. Often, unless it is so glaringly obvious that a 5-year-old could spot it, I don’t even notice a lot of “copying” from other films. I just sit down popcorn on hand and coke to the side and watch.

Sometimes I am so disappointed that I will pan a film I have just seen, but not often. It has to be really  bad for me to do that and some are that bad, no argument, but I will not judge a film too harshly if the overall story is good, the acting passable and the plot twist (if any) is memorable. Ghostquake is one such dreadful film and I hated it.

Other times, I will find a film that is so blazingly original that it blows my mind. After I watch it repeatedly, I’ll then write about it and ponder why the creativity gods are so fickle and only allow this kind of brilliance to shine once in a great while. The best recent example I can think of was the plot twist in Orphan (thanks GaryLee828 for reminding me of the great film) and of course The Orphanage.

So there you have it, the reason that I am so much more accepting of films that other folks obviously do not like because they “copy” other films. In a nutshell, I love the damned genre so much, that I love even the bad films and I will go out of my way to watch them all. Books, on the other hand, are different. I am not so forgiving there. If they are so badly written that even my overactive imagination cannot connect then they are dismissed immediately and panned.

So as I prepare to trawl through Netflix to find a horror film that I’ve not yet seen, preferably low-budget and gory, I’ll leave you with this thought. Even Sam Raimi copied himself on the first Evil Dead film; it just happens, learn to live with it.

*Oh and if that Corman-ish film sounds familiar, can you give me a title? It would be much appreciated.*

Orphan: 2009 evil child fright fest.
Orphan: 2009 evil child fright fest.