Thunder Road is 50 this year.
It has been called the Hillbilly Gone With the Wind, mainly based on its incredible durability on the big screens of the Southern Appalachians. Its status throughout American culture is almost mythical, claimed as an inspiration for the title of one of Bruce Springsteen’s early hits and the design of the Batmobile in the iconic ’60s TV series. The movie’s plot has nothing obvious to do with the story of the Springsteen song “Thunder Road,” but it seems to have a lot to do with a much-later hit song by Steve Earle called “Copperhead Road.” Here in Knoxville, the movie has inspired the name of a strong ale at Calhoun’s and a distinctive cheeseburger at Litton’s. Local rock ’n’ roll hero R.B. Morris has recorded his own version of the movie’s theme, “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” and sometimes closes shows with it.
Whether it’s a great film or not depends on which critic you talk to. It was a B movie not taken very seriously even by some of the people who made it, and it wasn’t any bigger a winner at the box office in 1958 than its makers expected it to be. But long after its contemporaries were forgotten, Thunder Road was enjoying a long and almost eerie afterlife, shown in drive-ins throughout the South for more than 20 years in the ’60s and ’70s as if it were a new movie.
It earned a surprising superlative. It was, allegedly, the most-screened film in the history of United Artists. It may have further life still. Jim Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum, the real creator of Thunder Road, is planning a reprise, a new movie with some big-name backing. The younger Mitchum will be in Knoxville this weekend for several events, among them a public screening of the movie at the Tennessee Theatre.
The release of Thunder Road set off a half-century of speculation in a city that may have always been a little too preoccupied with finding itself in the film. Contrary to some urban mythology, the movie wasn’t filmed here. The city depicting Memphis is a little too obvious in some scenes as Asheville, the city where filming was based. The Thunder Road–Knoxville connection is based on one quick line in the movie, about Knoxville as a destination for an East Kentucky bootlegger—if you sneeze, you’ll miss it—and, much more prominently, in a song Robert Mitchum himself wrote to promote the movie. “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” sung by Mitchum himself, was a moderate national hit in 1958. The geography of its tale is different from that in the movie script, but it was strangely specific, referring to a particular date, April 1, 1954, and one reckless bootlegger’s path from Maynardville south, “Blazing right through Knoxville/out on Kingston Pike/Just outside of Bearden...”
But where did Mitchum get such specific times and places?
The question has spawned a dozen different theories, and a couple of books, all dedicated to the proposition that there’s a real story behind the allegedly fictional movie. Although there’s no record of a bootlegger cracking up on Kingston Pike on April 1, 1954, there are enough similar stories that old-timers have debated one against the other as the time and place of “the real Thunder Road.”
It’s believed to be Robert Mitchum’s most personal movie. He was, by the time he made it, the deep-voiced, heavy-lidded heavy with the go-to-hell attitude who was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. He’d appeared in 60 movies and recently had been the star of some very big ones, like Angel Face and Night of the Hunter, the latter working with a script written by James Agee. He didn’t have any very practical reason to make a B-movie about moonshining, with realistic locations in the Southern Appalachians. But, pushing 40, he just wanted to.
In 1956, Mitchum drove around the South with his friend, the novelist and sometime screenwriter James Atlee Phillips, scouting locations. Phillips, who wrote murder mysteries under the name Philip Atlee, was a Texan who shared Mitchum’s enthusiasm for the project. Few motion pictures were ever shot in the South; hardly any had been actually shot in the Southern Appalachians, at least not since the silent Stark Love in the 1920s. When the Smoky Mountains appeared in movies, actors had to be careful not to kick up the Southern California sand. They scouted the South, from New Orleans to North Carolina; according to the story, it was on that trip that Mitchum met Elvis Presley at a truck stop in Mississippi, and offered him the lead role in the film, only to be buffaloed by Col. Tom Parker.
Phillips died in 1991; Robert Mitchum died in 1997, never having revealed, at least not to anyone who cared much, what inspired Thunder Road.
Arthur Ripley, an old studio writer who’d started in Hollywood in the silent era and later worked on Mack Sennett shorts like Ghost Parade and Monkey Business in Africa, and a few now-forgotten feature films, was the director. From the sound of it, Ripley, who had mostly retired from active filmmaking and was working as a film teacher at UCLA, left a lot of the decision-making to Robert Mitchum. But parts of Thunder Road have an old-fashioned touch, like a movie of the early ’30s, with moody lighting, a la Grapes of Wrath, and realistic periods of silence.
Thunder Road would be Ripley’s last movie; he died soon after its release. It was the first movie for a 16-year-old high-school kid named Jim Mitchum. Robert Mitchum’s son was a teenager when he co-starred in the movie as Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, a kid who’s tempted by the business.
It was smart casting; Jim Mitchum resembles his father as much as a brother might.
TODAY HE LIVES IN the mountains of Arizona. The sometime actor went on to an interesting career of supporting roles in movies ranging from Ride the Wild Surf to In Harm’s Way; he’s lately been mostly a horse breeder. “I live two and a half miles up a dirt road.” When you call him and ask if it’s Mr. Mitchum, he wants to know, first, who you are and why you want to know.
But if you want to talk about Thunder Road, he’s genial and generous with his time. It’s one of his favorite subjects. He’s not the gravelly baritone that his father was, but his conversation flows with some of the same nonchalance.
“Thunder Road has never died,” he says, still with a little amazement in his voice. He’s not sure what accounts for its enduring appeal, but he has some theories. “I think if you understood the history of the moonshining business and how it got started, it has a lot to do with the independent spirit of the people in that part of the country,” he says. “Also, it was a part of the country that was never exposed up to that point.”
Robert Mitchum’s association with the region or with moonshining might not be obvious. He was born in Connecticut, to a Norwegian mother, and later lived in New York. His rough-edged American father was killed in an industrial accident when Mitchum was young. But he had Southern connections.
“My father’s got family in South Carolina, you know,” says Jim Mitchum, who bears the name of the grandfather he never knew. “He spent some time down there, especially in the ’30s.” Some biographical sources say Robert Mitchum spent some time on a Georgia chain gang after an arrest for vagrancy. “I have a feeling that in his travels during the Depression, he made his way up to Tennessee. I also have a feeling that there were people in the family involved in that business, and that these characters were derived from personal experience.” The story of the independent bootlegger at odds with both the law and the mob seems too real to be made up. “The story is pretty—Well, it’s somebody. It may be a composite of two or three people.”
The reporter shares a few specific stories of real Knoxville bootleggers and theories of how Mitchum might have heard about them, perhaps through his association with author James Agee, or his visits with a fellow actor and fishing buddy who kept a cabin in East Tennessee. Jim Mitchum laughs. “The legend continues to grow.” He acknowledges that Agee and Mitchum were “drinking buddies,” but he’s not sure which, if any, of the real-life Knoxville stories are true. “One story I remember: My dad showed me a place—but I think it was up on the Blue Ridge Parkway—a 300-foot drop. Some guys were being chased, and thought they could jump it in a car. They didn’t make it.”
ENCOURAGED BY THE EXPERIENCE of Thunder Road, Jim Mitchum returned to the region and went into summer stock at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon. He’s returned to the area, and to Knoxville, several times, but not recently.
At the time they made the movie, no one was even hoping it would become iconic. “It snuck up on us, about it being a classic. You could go to the movies for 50 cents in 1958. It didn’t have the big numbers in 1958. But it kept going, kept going, kept going. Thunder Road was something that was half under the radar when it became something, created its own life.”
Mitchum owns the rights to the movie, which has been out on DVD since 2000. “After 50 years, the checks still come in. I can gauge what’s going on. I’m not rich, but it’s a nice supplemental income. It’s not about the money, though, it’s just an indication of the fact that it never stopped. It’s never quit. At 50, Thunder Road makes more money than it did 20 or 30 years ago. It just keeps on truckin’.
“What’s good about it is that we’re preparing to make a remake of the movie,” he says. He’s working with screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh, screenwriter for Jumanji, Armageddon, and the third Die Hard movie. His wife, Gail Hurd, producer of blockbuster thrillers like Aliens, all three Terminator movies, and most recently The Incredible Hulk, is involved, too. They’re just working on a script and considering locations now, and haven’t cast it yet, but if all goes well, it’ll be released by MGM.
Mitchum describes himself as a “gatekeeper” for the concept. “I had the idea to do it. I’m involved in production. The updated story is my idea.” And he’ll probably have to write a role for himself, he says, because if he doesn’t, people will ask him why he didn’t.
“The biggest thing about making it is not to lose sight of what made Thunder Road what it is,” he says. “I would probably get shot if I changed the movie as it is. It’s essentially the same movie, brought up into a modern era.” Of course, that raises questions; it’s the 21st century, and legal liquor is plentiful even in Tennessee. Moonshining and bootlegging still exist, but maybe not on the life-and-death level they did in the 1950s. Mitchum’s coy about how they’re going to handle that. “Ever hear of moonshiners in the ethanol business?” He mentions the traffic in untaxed cigarettes and counterfeit liquor. They have a plan, he says, but he won’t reveal what it is. “It’s a story, we can make it up if we want to.
“The biggest challenge for me is not turning it into a car-chase movie. It’s a story about people in the South, with a lot more music, a lot more going on. We’re scouting locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, some of the roadhouse places, the black-and-tan joints. We want to get music—rockabilly, blues—really bring it to the audience, bring that excitement of what’s going on.
“We gotta go down there and look. We want to get the cooperation of local guys who say, ‘You gotta see this, you gotta see that.’”
It sounds like he might be prejudiced in favor of the Knoxville locations. “I would like it to be more close to the song,” he says. “It’ll be a fun movie to make. A fun movie for the audience.
“It’s a chance to be involved in an area of the country I really love,” he says. “I’m 67 years old, and to be able to do that now is a great opportunity. I want to do it justice. It’s a responsibility to the audience. They’re the people who made it what it is.”
He sees a broad audience Hollywood has rarely reached. “The studio didn’t understand what it was,” in 1958, he says. “They didn’t know how to deal with it, didn’t know where the audience was. Back in the day, they didn’t have a clue who the audience was. They think it’s Hollywood, L.A., and New York, and the Grand Canyon in between. The South department, they really don’t have a clue. Ever been to a NASCAR race? Those audiences are huge. They don’t get it. NASCAR’s bigger than Hollywood by miles. The biggest audiences in the country.” Competitive bootlegging is widely acknowledged to be the inspiration for modern stock-car racing.
MITCHUM SEEMS TICKLED by the multiple homages to Thunder Road. He came to Asheville last year for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the actual filming, organized by a local car club. He rode around to the movie’s locations. “Those guys are fanatics,” he says. “They know more about the movie than I do. They’d ask me, ‘Do you remember the time when you were standing there?’” He laughs. He doesn’t. He doesn’t have any very clear memories; the movie was shot in 1957, when Mitchum was barely 16. He does remember that “Asheville was a little funky place in ‘57. It’s grown a lot since then.
“Those were some fun times,” he says. “But you’re talking 50 years ago.” The question he’s most often asked is what advice his dad gave him. “I’ve thought about it and thought about it,” he says. “I don’t remember any. He wasn’t telling me to come to his room every night and run lines.
“You’re a kid, you don’t know anything. You’re looking ahead. A 16-year-old kid in high school. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue.”
It had to be a heady experience. One of the co-stars was TV-noir stalwart Gene Barry, clean-cut hero of American youth, as the federal agent. Maybe the most surprising appearance in the movie is Keely Smith, the spritely, hypnotic young jazz singer then at her peak, when she was collaborating with Frank Sinatra and others; she sings the Mitchum song, “Whippoorwill.” It became her signature tune.
“Last year, for the car club, there was a three- or four-day tour for the 50th anniversary of when we made the movie,” Mitchum recounts. “Now there’s a 50th anniversary of the release of the movie in Tennessee! It’s just gotten bigger and bigger.” He’s especially looking forward to the Knoxville-area automobile tour of locations mentioned in the song, from Maynardville to Bearden. “It’s a cool thing,” he says.
“It’s become a highlight of my life. People are so interested. Kids, now in their 30s, say, ‘When I was a little kid, the first movie I remember is my dad taking me to see Thunder Road.’ Young people in their 30s are talking about this movie made 20 years before they were born. That’s pretty cool. It’s great to be identified with that movie.” He’s appeared in over 30 movies, several of them high-profile features starring the likes of John Wayne, Albert Finney, and Glenn Ford, and starred in a couple, including Moonrunners, a 1975 movie with a story similar to Thunder Road, which is credited, for better or worse, with inspiring the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. But people tend to recognize him for just one.
“People don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re an actor, what were you in?’ They say, ‘You were in Thunder Road, right? Oh, man!’”