Our Thunderbolt and Lightfoot month continues with an excellent 2008 essay written by a good friend of the Archive, Steve Saragossi. Like myself, Steve is a native North Londoner, a fact that we discovered some years ago. Separated by only a fistful of miles, we also discovered the mutual love of film and soundtracks had us both searching through the same market stalls in our teenage quest for treasured books, records and film memorabilia. Today, Steve lives in Australia where he continues to write. My sincere thanks Steve for submitting and sharing this piece with the Archive. I should also add that this essay contains some spoilers.
Michael Cimino’s 1974 directorial debut, the Clint Eastwood crime caper “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” sits very comfortably in context with the Hollywood cinematic mood of its time. Capitalising as it does on several popular genres – the road movie, buddy movie, crime movie and starring Eastwood, who at the time was at the peak of his popularity, the film was superficially as unthreatening and mainstream as could be imagined. However, when reading the film from a psychoanalytical perspective, the film reveals itself as a treatise on both the Mulvian nature of the conventional heterosexual marriage / conformity model vs. the male-narcissistic not-marriage model. This is juxtaposed with idea that the film is also concerned with oedipal rivalry on numerous levels.
Michael Cimino’s brief career is, by any standards, marked out by films of a highly phallocentric nature. His films often deal with the spirit of male camaraderie. They mainly eschew the overt macho bravado of John Milius or Sam Peckinpah, for instance, in favour of a more thoughtful exploration of the male experience. In “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) and “Year of the Dragon” (1985) female characters are peripheral and are mainly relegated to the status of onlookers in the male protagonists journey of self-discovery. His viewpoint may not be wholly misogynistic, but is nonetheless fairly disdainful, verging on mistrust.
“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” however presents an almost exclusively male universe wherein the very few female characters are either the fetishistic object of male desire, or portrayed as passive, dim-witted, or borderline psychotic. Pointedly, they are mainly seen to represent the castration fear personified. Of the female characters represented in the film, all of whom are extremely peripheral to the action, three are wives, two are independently minded young women, confident in their sexuality, two are prostitutes, one is a sexually frustrated housewife, and one is an aggressive feminist. Crucially, only two of these women are embodiments of the usual female role as described by Mulvey , highlighting the lack. The others do not provide inspiration for the “hero”, nor do they, as Mulvey states “…freeze the flow of actions in moments of erotic contemplation” . Rather, they seem to exist purely as signifiers of the emasculation of their spouses/tricks/voyeurs. Only the sexually confident secretary of the construction firm that Thunderbolt secures a job with, and the waitress at a diner (above), display typical Mulvian attributes in terms of existing purely as the objects of the male gaze.
Released in 1974, the film appeared at a point in time where generational gaps in the US were at there most extreme, punctuated as they were by the Korean and Vietnam wars and Flower Power. The three main principals represent generational stereotypes, and their attitudes juxtaposed to these historical benchmarks give rise to the narrative friction that allow the psychoanalytical subtext to work in a way that would have been either difficult or clumsy to accomplish had all the leads been contemporaries of one another. Having Lightfoot being approximately twelve years Thunderbolts junior, and Thunderbolt approximately twelve years Leary’s junior allows for an exploration of Oedipal rivalries that would have been obscured or even non-existent had they all been around the same age.
The film deals with the robbery of a bank vault by four rootless characters, three of whom are career criminals. The film is concerned less with the mechanics of the robbery, than with character development, and a keen sense of place. Although undeniably exciting, the film offers much more than the thrills and spills expected of a genre piece, especially a Clint Eastwood one. Relaxed in pace, it offers a meditation on friendship, betrayal, and a shrewdly observed sense of the American Midwest. It portrays an America as it actually was in the early seventies, not what it once was, a country now blind to the decline of traditional institutions. The film opens with the depiction of a small church in the middle of a beautiful but desolate Montana landscape, but this is soon desecrated by the intrusion of gunfire and the unmasking of Thunderbolt as a criminal who has been posing a priest (“the wolf shall lie down with the lamb”). The motif of the schoolhouse is also a target. Being the secret receptacle of the first robbery’s loot, the films narrative has the building moved in its entirety from its original location to somewhere out of the way, to make room for the march of “progress”. These two scenes offer us a symbolic desecration of traditional values. As a debut, it is as accomplished as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), and as deserving in comparison.
Thematically, it bears strong comparisons with Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” but whereas Penn’s film offered a similar dynamic with its protagonists, it nonetheless offered a more balanced Mulvian viewpoint in terms of the marriage vs. not-marriage model. The Barrow gang were seen as a socially functioning “family”, wherein the females had roles sympathetic with the notion of integration. Also the conflicts between the four main protagonists and other characters were less polarised than Cimino’s film.
In any discussion of this film one cannot ignore the oft-cited argument regarding “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” as to its supposed gay subtext . It’s certainly true that Lightfoot, and by extension the audience, are invited to gaze upon Thunderbolt as an erotic object (the shoulder re-location scene is especially fetishistic in its execution, and seems to be in the film purely as an exercise in homoerotic sado-masochism). This could understandably lead to a reading of the film in terms of repressed homosexual voyeurism. But Michael Cimino, in conversation with this author emphatically claims this to not to be the case, either consciously or unconsciously. This may be so, but there is no doubting the existence of much symbolism in the text to support an opposing viewpoint. Lightfoot’s adoration of Thunderbolt spills over into homoerotic wish-fulfilment on many occasions: when Eastwood re-appears in his car after apparently leaving for good, he remarks, in a lewd voice “people will talk…where there’s smoke there’s fire you know?”. Lightfoot is perhaps a little too at home when he has to dress up and act like a woman, falling easily into the role of the object of fetishistic desire. Cimino also slyly makes much use of cross cutting between Lightfoot, in drag, bending over in a short skirt, with Thunderbolt assembling a huge, extremely phallic cannon. Other factors, such as the films vernacular, which makes much use of the word “cock” in many situations, and its overall depiction of the a male world where females are sidelined could support a “gay subtext” reading. Ultimately though, this all serves to underestimate the richness, complexity and subtlety of the unconscious motivations and Mulvian interpretations, which offer greater rewards to the viewer, and furthermore withstand more robust examination. In his article “Tightass and Cocksucker” , journalist Peter Biskind posits the film as purely a repressed homosexual parable, citing the narrative as being a “…thinly disguised metaphor for the sexual tensions between the two principal characters.” This is an easy reading, but rather too superficial to stand up to close scrutiny, and ultimately the article resorts to disdainful remarks about the film as a whole rather than reinforcing his position. The piece does at least recognise the fact that all heterosexual characters apart from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are humiliated – but he draws no conclusions from this.
“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” takes its time to introduce its four main characters, giving the audience time to invest an interest and build an understanding of the main leads.
Clint Eastwood’s John Doherty (Thunderbolt) is a Korean and Vietnam vet emotionally and physically scarred by the conflict. His leg is in a brace and he bears the scars of battle over his body. He is wary of relationships, and in true Eastwoodian style is emotionally detached and reacts to situations rather than instigates them. His character acts as a bridge morally between the repressed, almost fascistic Leary, and the freewheeling, naïve Lightfoot, arousing as he does almost childlike adoration in both men. Thunderbolt is shown to be the most mature, well rounded character in the film - in control, omnipotent. He is the character around whom all the others display their needs and wants. He is representational of the idealised ego, and a patriarchal figure for Lightfoot and Leary.
George Kennedy’s “Red” Leary is an older Korean War veteran with and is strongly repressed sexually. He is portrayed as sexually impotent. His violent tendencies are implicit, overt and a natural expression of his psyche. His worldview is as simple as it is cruel. He persecutes the gullible Goody at every turn, and even though he appears to want to kill Thunderbolt, once the “climax” of the opportunity to do so has passed, he reverts to a kind of hero-worship of him, and a hatred of Lightfoot, who he sees as an interloper. Leary, read from a Freudian perspective, is best seen as the father who has been beaten by the son (Thunderbolt), who absconded with the money, which could be read as the forbidden matriarchal object of desire. Leary, now beaten, is consequently rendered impotent. In an expository sequence, it is intimated that Leary may have been the gang leader in the original heist, setting up, prior to the films’ start, the Leary/Thunderbolt dynamic as a father/son model. This theory is manifested in an early sequence wherein Leary finally catches up with Thunderbolt after apparently years of chasing him, and they begin a physical fight in which Leary is quickly reduced to a gasping, wheezing heap, compared to the powerful, in-control Thunderbolt. This final humiliation, coupled with Lightfoots’ arrival on the scene triggers a shift in the protagonists’ dynamic whereby Leary defensively displaces his anger to Lightfoot, the other son figure. Lightfoot’s appearance on the scene enrages Leary, who now sees himself a rival with Lightfoot for Thunderbolt, having now lost the Oedipal battle, and is now relegated to a sibling role, in competition for the place of favoured son. Lightfoot’s own history pitches him in trajectory to view Thunderbolt also in terms as a father figure, so the scene is then set for a metaphorical showdown, with Thunderbolt as the “prize” which in turn fulfils Thunderbolt’s omnipotent fantasy and reinforces his phallic narcissism.
From Leary’s perspective though, Lightfoot can be seen as weaker son, a lesser rival, with whom, when challenged, Leary determines never to be beaten again, at any cost. Leary wishes to kill Thunderbolt, the new father figure, for having overthrown him in an oedipal battle, and for being a rival for the matriarchal, hidden cash. It is a quest that has been with Leary for many years, and when he finally has the opportunity to slay the “son” who challenged him, and claim his “mother”, he cannot.
Leary has never developed a human being, and his character in the film displays all the responses one would expect from the beaten father, now emasculated and impotent. He is shown to be in awe of the female, but unable to interact with them on a mature level. He is the voyeur, risking identification and capture during the heist scene when he comes across the bank managers daughter naked, having intercourse with her boyfriend. He can do nothing but stare in awe at the tableau in front of him, and is starkly reminded of his own inability to perform. When Lightfoot recalls an incident when a housewife appears nude at a window in front of him, Leary’s response is childlike and awestruck “did’ya…did’ya see…y’know..everything?”. During a scene when Leary and Goody are posing as Ice-cream vendors, his response to an irritating lad who berates Leary for not being on the right street at the right time is typical from one child to a peer “Hey…why don’t you go fuck a duck”. The outburst is initially shocking, as a mature adult, even a criminal one, would not talk to a small child in this way, but seen in view of his stunted worldview, the response is wholly appropriate.
In fact, Leary’s rhetoric is littered with phallic references (“drop your cocks and reach for your socks”). For Leary, the female genital, the threat, has remained intact and rampant, and his development has remained forever stunted by the fact his desire for the money, the hidden, has never been resolved. His violence, toward everyone in the abstract, and Lightfoot in particular, is a manifestation of masturbatory catharsis, his only recourse. His pathological tendencies are a result of his unresolved repressed attitudes. Having been familiar with this film for many years, and now reading the narrative from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, I am satisfied that the concepts Freud introduced have validity in this film, and either consciously or subconsciously Cimino has written a character that follows a typical Freudian arc.
The catalyst of the films narrative is Jeff Bridges’ Lightfoot. A young rootless drifter for whom crime is just another means of coming by some money, he is portrayed as sexually ambiguous not so much in deed, but in terms of his being a male drifter in his early in his early twenties in the US in 1974. In the film he is searching indirectly for an absent father figure. Symbolically this is manifested in many ways. Whether stealing a large overtly phallic car from under the nose of a patriarchal car dealer, with which he destroys Dunlop, a former gang-member of Thunderbolt’s group; or his obvious delight at Thunderbolts’ return to his car after apparently leaving for good, we see in Lightfoot a need to reconcile with a father figure. Lightfoot also displays Oedipal tendencies in his relationship with Thunderbolt. He is more socially and morally aware than Leary, but still sees in Thunderbolt a father figure. There is passing reference to Lightfoot’s past where he relates to Thunderbolt that he was removed from home very early on to a boarding school, and was subsequently taken in by a much older woman who apparently introduced the naïve youngster to sex. This may go some way in explaining Lightfoots’ unresolved issues surrounding a mother figure, and a need to ally closely with Thunderbolts’ patriarchal figure. In an early scene, Lightfoot is seen to fail in his Oedipal task of throwing Thunderbolt free of his stolen “phallic” car, and thus defeated, falls into the role of attempting, for the remainder of the film, to identify with the patriarchal aggressor. Thus, Lightfoot becomes the character with whom the audience most readily identifies, because in attempting to symbolically resolve his desirable impulses, he is manifesting the very reasons we the audience find satisfaction through the enjoyment of films, i.e. the desire to satisfy the Oedipal conflict, even within a genre piece like this.
Geoffrey Lewis’ character Goody, would appear to exist as a stooge for Leary, and a safe vent for his toothless rages (he resorts to the cheap shot of firing his gun in impotent anger in the air after failing to capture Thunderbolt, causing Goody, who was taking the opportunity of reliving himself, to urinate all over himself). Goody seems to be comfortable in his role as the receptacle of jokes/anger/badly aimed punches, and emerges as an affable, but ineffectual member of the gang.
The film is unusual in that within the growing relationship that develops between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it is Thunderbolt who emerges as the fetishistic object of Lightfoot’s gaze. This then leads to both the audiences unusually scopophilic identification with the Eastwood character (typical of the persona he had cultivated up to that point) and Lightfoots’ more narcissistic identification, as there are sexual elements rooted in his regard of Thunderbolt.
As in most of his heroic, mythical roles the Eastwood character is the bearer of the audiences look. He is the protagonist who will propel the narrative, and is certainly the most powerful ego on screen. In fact, as Mulvey states, Eastwood, when playing the hero, is powerful and omnipotent to an extraordinary degree . However, there is a dichotomy at play in this particular film. For though, as spectators, we are not fully subjecting Eastwood to the sexual objectification that is so often the case with female characters, we are nonetheless invited to partially objectify Eastwood as a sexual animal. As Neale states in his article “Masculinity as Spectacle” when referring to John Ellis’ “Visible Fictions” – “…identification is mobile, fluid, constantly transgressing identities, positions, and roles. Identifications are multiple, fluid, at points even contradictory.” In several key moments, we are shown lingering shots of Eastwood slowly removing the belt form his trousers (always in service of the plot – either to form a harness to re-locate his dislocated shoulder, or to use the buckle as an improvised screwdriver), or he is lovingly shot from a low angle against the wide Montana sky. Lightfoot is often shown admiring Eastwood from a distance, and we as the audience are invited also to objectify him. When referring to Freud’s dream theory, our ego’s are fooled by the “normal” depiction of male movie star objectification, and the truer nature of our (and Lightfoot’s) repressed desires slips by un-noticed on a conscious level.
This dichotomy befell a handful of stars in the 60’s and 70’s. Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen typically had their obligatory “shirt-off” scenes. They uniquely managed to maintain their positioning in narcissistic identification roles, controlling events, whist muddying the water as being the erotic object, significantly without eroding their “omnipotence”. Few stars have been able to display this – John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin for instance would not instil this dichotomy in the spectator. This dichotomy appeared during the post war years. Certainly no male star beforehand inspired this type of ambiguity in the audience response. Marlon Brando was perhaps the first to display this, but it was the above mentioned stars who took it further. The Reagan-era stars such as Schwarzenegger and Stallone displayed a rather more Nietzschian hero ideal, and the audiences objectification has nothing to do with sexual politics but rather owes more to a narcissistic super-egocentric version of the mirror image ideal.
So, in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”, accustomed as we are to the partial objectification of a typical Eastwoodian character, the audience is not aware on a conscious level of the potential castration-fear inherent in such objectivity.
The film also goes to great lengths to underline its position of the Mulvian marriage vs. not-marriage position. All throughout the narrative we are shown conventional male/female couples wherein the male is portrayed as totally emasculated and powerless – a direct result of their embracing the socially integrated conformist heterosexual marriage model. They are seen as jealous of the direct opposite embodied by Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – i.e. the phallic,omnipotent, non-conformist, empowered, free “not-marriage” model. Cimino’s position in this regard would appear to be unequivocally in favour of the not-marriage role, for although ultimately Thunderbolt ends up no better off than the beginning of the film – his narcissism is intact, but all his friends and colleagues end up dead, the overriding sense is that of the “not-marriage” option being by far the most attractive.
The film has several scenes wherein Thunderbolt and Lightfoot come across married couples on their travels. In each case the wife is seen as sexually unattractive, in control, oblivious to Eastwood’s superego, and domineering of their spouse. In contrast, the husbands are meek, emasculated, and in awe of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. In the final schoolhouse scene, simply their wordless, non-threatening presence is sufficient to reduce one such husband to gibbering subservience, handing over his belongings and cash when nothing was further from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s mind, whilst the wife looks on in disgust. Although played for laughs, this vignette exemplifies the contradiction between what Steve Neale refers to as “narcissism and the law, between an image of narcissistic authority on one hand and an image of social authority on the other”. The film is quite constant in ridiculing this portrayal of the socially integrated symbolic whilst extolling the virtues of nostalgic narcissism inherent in the main characters, extending to Leary and even the child-like Goody. Although many films, typically westerns, portray the “hero” in the “not-marriage” position, it is rare to find a film that wholly ridicules the “marriage” model to such an extent. This, I believe, is tied in with Cimino’s phallocentric viewpoint, wherein males and male camaraderie is the desired option and males who are “tainted” by association with the castration-fear object of the female are weak and ineffectual.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s interaction with two prostitutes (right) weakens their omnipotence, and reveals their insecurities. It also shows their inability to interact meaningfully as socially integrated people. The encounter for Thunderbolt serves no “purpose” for him, and is perfunctory at best for Gloria. Seen as a Venn diagram, this and other crossovers with integrated society serve mainly as reminders for Thunderbolt why he chooses to be as removed as he is from this model. For Lightfoot too, the encounter is far less satisfactory emotionally for him (“Redheads are always bad luck, man”) than being in Thunderbolt’s shadow. In fact any time Thunderbolt, Lightfoot, Leary or Goody come into contact with anyone representing social integration the result is usually the repelling of one group by the other.
The only scene which offers a glimpse of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s position in a possibly greater milieu than simply marriage vs. not-marriage is their encounter with Bill McKinney’s unhinged bunny killer. This surreal incident is treated for uneasy laughs, but shows clearly that although Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are obviously personifications of the not-marriage model by virtue of their resistance to social standards and responsibilities, they are however infinitely more integrated than McKinney who has departed so far from social integration as to be barely functioning. The scene, which depicts McKinney and his car, and its contents, portray his character in an even earlier stage of fixation than either Thunderbolt or Lightfoot. He displays what Freud refers to as anally expulsive, chaotic characteristics (the gibbering, the cars’ exhaust piped into the interior of the car, the caged defecating racoon) which portray McKinney in a regressive state that even consciously the audience recognises Thunderbolt and Lightfoot will not sink to. The film attempts to show here that ultimately, however appealing the trappings of not-marriage may be, the ultimate price paid is total abstention from any point on the moral compass. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s quest for the cash however, when thought through, serves to further an argument in favour of a more integrated position in society. Lightfoot, for instance, wants nothing more than to purchase a brand new Cadillac, i.e. obtain the trappings of society, to become a part of it.
The film is rich with symbolism, and one which is deserving of mention, as it occurs many times in the course of the film, is the constant placing of the protagonists near clear fresh water – lakes, rivers, etc. Water in symbolic terms can be seen to represent many things – the unconscious, emotions etc. But although the considerably high number of scenes featuring fresh water would seem to indicate a deeper meaning, it is perhaps, a visual aesthetic at work only and nothing more.
“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” ends with the destruction of Leary and Lightfoot (and incidentally, the hapless Goody), both of whom fail to resolve their Oedipal desires (though neither dies at the hands of Thunderbolt). For Lightfoot, the signs were never good. Thunderbolt had given clear messages throughout the film that although he was clearly comfortable in Lightfoot's company, there was never going to be a lasting relationship between them, Thunderbolt intending them all to split up and go their separate ways after the successful heist. For Leary, his trajectory was never in doubt, his rage was never going to find catharsis (apart from perhaps in killing Lightfoot). For Thunderbolt, the future looks equally bleak, the loneliness of the narcissist has been restored, his inability/unwillingness to maintain a relationship underlined by the dénouement, left to drive alone through a nihilistic landscape.
Ultimately then, the film offers a rich and fertile ground to examine and test various psychoanalytical suppositions, and I think, for the most part, the theories, especially Mulvey’s emerge with much credence.
(Left, Michael Cimino with Clint in 2015)