Sexual politics in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Tightass and cocksucker

by Peter Biskind

from Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Michael Cimino’s new Clint Eastwood vehicle, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, has been given short shrift by reviewers. But, like WALKING TALL and several other recent films that have been scorned by big city critics, it has been doing well in neighborhood theaters and drive-ins. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is a hybrid of several currently popular formulas: male friendship, paranoid chase, and big heist. It draws heavily on such films as VANISHING POINT, SCARECROW, COPS AND ROBBERS, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SLITHER, THE STING, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE OUTFIT, THE LAST DETAIL, and DIRTY MARY AND CRAZY LARRY. I is distinguished from its predecessors largely by the audacity with which it plays with the barely submerged homosexual element in the male friendship formula, and by its frank and undisguised contempt for heterosexuality.

I saw the film in a medium-sized industrial city in upstate New York. There it was clear from the enthusiastic response of a predominantly working class audience that Cimino’s efforts (he is responsible for the script as well as the direction) touched a responsive chord. The film seems to occupy and exploit an area where homosexual and working class attitudes towards women overlap.

Clint Eastwood plays Thunderbolt, an itinerant bank robber on the run from former members of his gang who are convinced he betrayed them to the cops. He is picked up by Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) in one of those “customized” Detroit cars covered with spidery blue lines. The two of them lead their pursuers, Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), on a merry chase until the latter can be persuaded that Thunderbolt never did squeal on them after all. Following a lukewarm reconciliation, all four uneasily join forces to repeat the spectacular heist which gave Thunderbolt his name: the theft of one-half million dollars from Montana Armored with the aid of a U.S. Army artillery piece which launches armor-piercing shells through inches of heat-tempered steel. The theft is successful, but the thieves fall out among themselves. Leary beats up on Lightfoot, makes off with the loot, and is subsequently killed. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot not only escape, but stumble on an ancient one-room schoolhouse where the loot from the first Montana Armored robbery had been hidden behind a blackboard. They recover the money and fulfill Lightfoot’s fondest wish—to pay cash down for a spanking new white Cadillac convertible . But while they are driving off into the sunset, Lightfoot dies of the beating he received from Leary. Thunderbolt must go on alone.

Whereas the boy-meets-boy formula is usually a peripheral element in what are primarily action films, in THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT the male romance moves to the fore. The action becomes a thinly disguised metaphor for the sexual tensions between the two principle characters. The flavor of their relationship is established immediately by Lightfoot’s overtures of friendship which descend quickly to innuendo. He observes that they shouldn't been seen together so much, since people will begin to talk: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Lest we worry about Lightfoot’s heterosexuality, however, the next scene shows him securing two young women for himself and Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is reluctant and uncomfortable, but allows himself to be seduced. A close up of his face while he is being worked over (making love is not quite the word for it) reveals a variety of emotions from embarrassment to boredom—anything but pleasure. God forbid the Eastwood character should obtain pleasure from another, especially a woman. As usual, he is sufficient unto himself. Both young women are treated badly, exploited for locker room laughs. Only one woman in the film, a hippie motorcyclist, is able to withstand the overwhelming power of machismo. Her independence is applauded, perhaps because the film is more angry at heterosexuality than at women per se.

All the heterosexual couples in the film are humiliated. Thunderbolt and Leary burst in on a comical middle-aged couple (Montana Armored’s manager and his wife) in their suburban bedroom, and then on the couple’s daughter who is energetically making love with a young man. Later we get a brief shot of this latter couple, naked and vulnerable, bound to each other with rope in an ugly parody of the sexual act. When Thunderbolt and Lightfoot stumble on the schoolhouse at the end, they surprise a Jewish couple who are sightseeing. The couple’s reaction to the macho vibes of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is terror. The husband, in a comical display of urban fecklessness, unburdens himself of his Instamatic and other paraphernalia before fleeing to his station wagon.

Not only are heterosexual couples the object of ridicule, but heterosexual passion is portrayed as grotesque. Leary is mocked for his dirty-old-man view of women, while a porcine telegraph operator slavers over Playboy pin ups and spends much of his time masturbating in the john. Frustrated heterosexual desires, then, are demeaning and obsessional, while unconsummated homosexual passion is sentimentalized as both ennobling and liberating.

The humiliation of women and heterosexual couples is contrasted to the affection and tenderness exchanged by Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and to the male pin-up stance the film adopts toward Eastwood. He is constantly preening himself—removing his shirt, flexing his muscles, taking off his belt—while the camera prowls around him, looking for the most flattering angle, the most seductive pose.

The homosexual fable becomes more explicit when Lightfoot dresses in drag in order to incapacitate the telegraph operator so that he won't turn in an alarm when the bank is busted. In a bizarre sexual allegory which one hesitates to disturb, Lightfoot zaps the man with a blackjack that he pulls out of his underpants, otherwise stuffed with gauze and tape for use in gagging the victim. We get a generous glimpse of Lightfoot’s ass under his dress, covered with a body stocking, as he exits through a window.

Meanwhile, Thunderbolt and Leary are performing the heist. The two sequences are complimentary, and their relation is underscored by crosscutting between them. This occasion is the only time in the film in which Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are separated. The separation seems to allow them safely and symbolically to indulge in their homosexual role fantasies without danger of real consummation. Lightfoot’s feminine attire compliments Thunderbolt’s phallic cannon. Even the use of stockings underlines the symbolic relationship: Lightfoot wears women’s stockings over the lower half of his body; Thunderbolt and Leary wear stockings over their heads.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (still in drag) are reunited in their car at a drive-in after the robbery. To avoid suspicion Lightfoot snuggles up to Thunderbolt in a parody of a heterosexual couple. This is the highpoint of homosexual play—and as such, most be suppressed if the theme is not to become explicit.

From here on in, it is downhill. The police find their trail, and Leary punishes Lightfoot by beating him senseless. This act itself is one of jealous rage; Leary and Thunderbolt had been friends since the Korean War. The beating gradually paralyzes Lightfoot’s leg (castration), complimenting Thunderbolt’s damaged leg (we get a glimpse of his brace in the beginning). Once castrated, Lightfoot can only die. After another symbolic exchange of cigars, he expires, his face contorted in an ugly grin as he says he feels like a hero. But, and here the film adopts a tone of elegiac masculine sentimentality, the price has been too high. Lightfoot must die because homosexual male love is still taboo, because society will not permit the consummation the film strains to achieve. Lightfoot’s longing had become too explicit for him to be allowed to survive. Leary, the most sexually repressed and adolescent of the four male characters, goaded by Lightfoot’s sexual precocity and his own semi-acknowledged jealousy, acts out society’s prohibition by beating Lightfoot to death. The violence of Leary’s own death, torn to pieces by dogs, is an indication of the film’s sympathies.

The relation between Leary, Thunderbolt, and Lightfoot is in one sense a commentary on the changing male image in films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Leary, the oldest, having had his most vital experience in the Korean War, embodies the repressed sexuality of the 50s, a decade of domesticity and sexual underdevelopment . Thunderbolt, some ten years younger, is the self-contained loner of the 60s, identified with the Eastwood persona of the Leone cycle and the Siegel films. Lightfoot is the sexually ambiguous youth of the 70s, heir to the 60s breakdown of sex roles. He is as dangerous to the system of sex taboos as he is to the system of law and order. He threatens the 50s male image by mocking its bad faith, and tries to seduce the 60s loner into an idyllic male community. This proves to be impossible.

The lament for an impossible ad fugitive homosexual love is merged with a tearful tribute to lost innocence and youth. The three older men live in the shadow of the past—of meaningful actions (the Korean War, the first Montana Armored job) which occurred years ago. Thunderbolt tells Lightfoot he appeared ten years too late. The second Montana Armored robbery is a pale copy of the first one. Two of the original gang members have been killed—the mastermind and the electronics expert—and the survivors are barely adequate to the task. The association of the loot from the first robbery with the old schoolhouse where it was hidden accentuates the sense of loss. (The schoolhouse is now an historical monument, and its original sight the scene of a large modern school—“Progress,” comments Thunderbolt.) For a moment it looks as if the past can be recovered, but this proves a false hope. Lightfoot is already dying.

Who or what is responsible for this failure is not entirely clear. Leary is the proximate cause, but he in turn embodies a complex of cultural attitudes towards sex that must find their ultimate source in postwar U.S. society. Society and its institutions do not figure heavily in the film except as caricature heavies. The most revealing sequence involves the quartet’s attempts to find work to finance the heist. Aside from Thunderbolt, who works as a welder, the jobs they secure are intended to appear ludicrous. Goody works as a Good Humor man and is subjected to humiliations at the hands of small and impertinent children. The absence of all but the most submerged social criticism is itself suggestive. We just take it for granted that four men of different ages and indefinite class should exist in a criminal relationship to society. The only way men can be men, free from demeaning work and domestic suffocation, is on the road and outside the law in an idyllic male community, itself fragile and short-lived.

The most likely candidates for the Enemy are women who become the scapegoats for male frustration and dissatisfaction. True, it is Leary who kills Lightfoot, but he is merely the instrument of heterosexual oppression. Thunderbolt’s complaint while passively enduring the sexual attentions of a woman early in the film can stand as an epitaph for all Cimino’s men: “You're killing me.”