Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Now nearly fifty years old, Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has been reviewed dozens of times, and in many respects the film has not aged well. Its misogyny and homo-eroticism were noticeable even upon its release, yet it was still a box-office hit thanks to the craft and charisma of its stars: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, and George Kennedy. However, no previously published review has dwelt on the relation of Cimino’s script to his source material: the confession of Michael Martin, the original Lightfoot. There are some scenes that are giveaways that Cimino had read Martin’s confession and taken notes–and they stick out in relation to the rest of the story (which is a conventional bank heist with Eastwood wielding a very big gun).

  • In the opening scene, Red Leary (George Kennedy) attacks John Doherty (Clint Eastwood, aka Thunderbolt), who is preaching to his congregation. Doherty escapes from the church and runs through a field to the road, where a passing Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) allows him to crawl into the car. Michael Martin’s Lightfoot also met his John Doherty as he was posing as a clergyman.
  • Clint Eastwood resets his own dislocated shoulder using a trick involving his belt and a tree. Michael Martin did the same thing while he was on the run from robbing Major Bray at Medford, Massachusetts.
  • One early scene shows Eastwood drying off from a shower and we see a brace on his lower leg, indicating an old injury. This is never explained or expounded upon on in the film, though we might assume it was an old war injury. This recalls the calf wound that Martin’s John Doherty received from a dragoon’s musket fire; and also the injured leg that Dr. John Wilson had that led many to believe he had been Martin’s John Doherty.
  • Eastwood and Bridges threaten a couple to trade their stolen car for the couple’s car–much like Martin and Doherty accosted highway travelers and forced them to trade horses. In general, Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot features many car chases, recalling the attention Martin gave to horses in his account.
  • As part of the heist plan, Lightfoot’s role is to dress in drag to distract the alarm company manager. In Martin’s account, Thunderbolt has Martin dressing in drag in order to gain entry to a wedding party so that they could rob other attendees.
  • The MacGuffin of the film is the lost loot hidden in the vanished one-room schoolhouse. Who was known for building a one-room (round) schoolhouse? Dr. John Wilson, Vermont’s favorite candidate for being Thunderbolt.

In sum, Cimino seems very familiar with both Michael Martin’s confession and the accusations against Dr. Wilson, which were published together in popular editions. It is less obvious whether Cimino made any nods towards Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot film, but I would argue that he did in a crucial manner: Cimino framed his film around the desolate, wild beauty of Montana, much the way in which Sirk employed the lush, ancient landscape of rural Ireland. The land is a star in both movies.

Other reviewers have put forth the idea that the theme of the movie is the New West vs. the Old West, verbalized when Eastwood utters “Progress” with contempt, and explains why the schoolhouse was moved out to the desolate freeway: “History. History, damn it!” I can’t argue with that interpretation. Cimino is not around to ask anymore (and gave few interviews during his career), so it’s hard to tell why he thought Michael Martin’s story fitted this theme. Perhaps it was because he read of Martin being described as one of the last highwaymen, the last of a breed–and transferred that to a story of an honorable, veteran thief convinced to pull one more heist.

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