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.
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.