Despite the fact that there are more films available for home viewing than ever before, there is a significant crop of films that never hit DVD. One of the most serious omissions on the format has been Rolling Thunder. The 1977 film casts William Devane as a Vietnam vet who is out for revenge against a crew of seriously bad guys, enlisting Tommy Lee Jones in the process. It is an understated and magnificent film, and for too long has been difficult to see. It got a bit of exposure in the ’90s when Quentin Tarantino borrowed the title to name his distribution company, but has since fallen back into movie geek obscurity.

Luckily, if you live in Atlanta you can see a projected print on Friday, November 5 at the Plaza Theater. For everyone else, be happy that the film is streaming online and will finally hit DVD (hooray!), albeit not quite in the way you probably want. Details are after the break.

The headline you really want to read is ‘Rolling Thunder Finally Hitting DVD Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.’ If there was ever a ’70s revenge film worthy of Criterion, it is this one.

But the DVD presentation will be courtesy of MGM’s ‘manufacturing on demand’ program. You’ll have to buy the film from Amazon, likely at a price of around $19.98, and the DVDs will be produced to individual orders. No physical stock will be in store, in other words. It’s basically the Warner Archive program from Fox and MGM. There will be no blu-ray offerings and the discs will be bare-bones, featuring at most a theatrical trailer. The first couple waves of MOD MGM films weren’t even anamorphic, so if that’s important to you, time to deal with a visual step backward.

But for those who’ve wanted Rolling Thunder on DVD and aren’t willing to settle for the Spanish pan and scan import, this is the way to go. In the meantime you can watch Rolling Thunder online in the US via Hulu (that presentation is only good for a couple more weeks) and Comcast subscribers can see it via Xfinity. MGM HD is also showing the film, so those with that channel are good to go.

A couple words about the film: Rolling Thunder wasn’t the first post-Vietnam movie, but despite turning into all-out action at the end, it handles the subject of a soldier’s return home with great sensitivity. William Devane was handed a killer role as Major Charles Rane, who arrives home in Texas after years as a POW to find that not only has his home changed; he’s changed as well. Director John Flynn keeps the tone hushed and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) channels a little Godfather-style Gordon Willis, massively underlighting interior scenes and filling Major Rane’s eyes with deep shadow. Rane’s early scenes at home are chilling as they reveal just how damaged he is. A scene where he has an honest conversation with a hometown cop is one of the scariest ‘man to man’ talks captured on film.

Paul Schrader wrote the original draft (and even wrote Travis Bickle into a cameo, which was never shot) but a lot of the film’s substance might have come from a rewrite by Heywood Gould, based on this letter from the screenwriter. Rolling Thunder is fraught with tension and Flynn allows it to build and build. Well before it explodes into violence the film is emblematic of the bygone and much missed character-based ’70s thriller. There’s even some subtext (and it’s barely even ‘sub’) that keeps the friendship between Rane and a fellow POW played by Tommy Lee Jones from falling into familiar post-war territory.

If you’re in Atlanta come out to see the film at the Plaza this Friday night at 9:30 and/or midnight. The print looks great (it first ran there this past Tuesday) and there’s no better way to enjoy the film’s blend of mood and violence than on the big screen. But DVD, even non-anamorphic and non-special edition, will do nicely, too.

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