“Let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol
His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load
When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road.
Sometimes into Asheville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down
Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode
He’d go by like they were standin’ still on that Thunder Road…”
— “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” words & music by Robert Mitchum, Don Ray & Jack Marshall
This month marks the 58th anniversary of the release of the cult classic Thunder Road, much of which was shot in and around Asheville. Despite its humble origins as a low-budget B flick, the film has endured over the years, especially among a certain segment of movie fans. In addition, it has earned a special place in the hearts of car and racing enthusiasts the world over.
Thunder Road is a story about mountain moonshine runners (“The definitive moonshine picture” – Leonard Maltin), big-city mobsters, fast cars and the Treasury agents (“revenoors”) who chase them, along with a girl or two tossed in for good measure Its story line would later be exploited ad nauseam in other films, but was still fresh in 1958. The movie has always held a special attraction for men, many of whom have fond memories of either seeing it at their local theater or watching it with their dad or granddad at home. A strong antiauthoritarian streak runs through it, another reason for its appeal to young males.
Among other notable achievements, Thunder Road is the movie that launched the muscle-car era in America, according to classic car expert Pete Dunton.
“After Thunder Road, things would never be the same again (in the car world),” according to Dunton. Embedding it even more deeply in the popular culture was Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s rock anthem “Thunder Road,” the title of which he took from the movie poster. Other incarnations of the name have included amusement park rides, horse racing events, songs, mobile comics, rock bands, board games and even an alcohol distillery, just to name a few.
And if all that weren’t enough, a 1975 spinoff, a movie called Moonrunners (featuring Robert Mitchum’s son Jim) served as the inspiration for the wildly popular 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” All in all, not a bad legacy for a little movie made in a few short weeks on a shoestring.
Robert Mitchum, known for being something of a maverick himself, had wanted to do the film for a long time. Having previously spent time in the South (he had family in South Carolina), he nursed an admiration for the independent, rebellious spirit of the region, especially the mountain culture of Western North Carolina and east Tennessee. If that part of the country had an “attitude problem,” it was one that Mitchum liked and attempted in some ways to emulate in his own life. From the start, Thunder Road was his baby. In fact, it was he who largely pulled the finances together for the project, while also serving as the film’s producer and co-writer. He even composed some of the music and lyrics and, it was rumored, directed several scenes himself. Making it a family affair, he cast his oldest son, Jim, in the part of his kid brother Robin (a role, according to Jim Mitchum, originally slated for Elvis Presley). All in all, this was one project where the sleepy-eyed actor, famous for his “I don’t give a damn” attitude both on and off the screen, was all in.
The movie was released in May 1958 with little fanfare or advance publicity, and received almost no attention from the critics. It seemed destined to die a quick death, buried and forgotten along with a thousand other films of similar low pedigree. Except it didn’t.
Instead, it stuck around, seldom receiving top billing at first-run movie houses, but frequently appearing as the second or third feature on a twin or triple bill, usually at an outdoor venue. In fact, it was probably the drive-ins, once so popular, that both saved the movie and eventually turned it into a cult classic. The movie remained especially popular in small towns throughout the South and Southeast, where the so-called “car culture” first took firm root in the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the cradle of NASCAR.
At the heart of the story is the Mitchum character Lucas (Luke) Doolin, a tough, resourceful veteran of the Korean War, who, now that he has returned home, is resolved to carry on with the family business of making and “runnin’ moon” through the mountains. He becomes even more determined in his role as a “whiskey man” when challenged by government agents intent on squelching the illicit trade, along with syndicate thugs out of Memphis looking to horn in on the business.
“The movie respects the traditions of the Scots-Irish, who have a long tradition of moonshining and fierce independence,” says Michael Gouge, a lecturer of mass communication at UNC Asheville. “It also shows the encroachment of the modern world into the traditional family-based clan systems. The cars in the movie illustrate the postwar rise of hot rod culture. Skilled veterans home from war often sought out fast cars and motorcycles to capture some of the thrills they became accustomed to during the war.”
Like the movie cowboy hero of old, the Luke Doolin character lives by an inner ethic, one based on a “don’t tread on me” principle of personal freedom and self-reliance. And while, like those older Western heroes, Luke is a peace-loving, neighborly man with a long fuse, he will only be pushed so far before pushing back. Once riled, watch out, you might just get your hat smashed (watch the movie to learn about that.) Above all, he insists on being his own man and living strictly by his own rules (“I don’t fix; I don’t buddy up with one living soul,” he tells his brother). These were qualities Mitchum himself admired in mountain folk, romanticized as perhaps they were. His character would in turn embody them in the film, right to the bitter end.
As it turned out, audiences loved it. “They [Hollywood] didn’t really understand the movie,” Jim Mitchum has said. “They didn’t have a clue who the audience was for the movie. Yet it has never been out of release in 50 years [plus]. It’s shown somewhere all the time.”
Fifty-eight years later, many people around Asheville still vividly recall the making of Thunder Road. Here’s a sampling:
“My father, Charles Elledge, was an educator and served as the principal of Marion High School in the 1950s. He also had a passion for acting and over the years appeared in various films and TV productions. He played one of the moonshiners in Thunder Road. It was a small part, but one he enjoyed. My dad had a big, imposing bearing, but [was] very congenial. He liked playing characters like this — he played Preacher Sims for years in “Horn in the West” in Boone — and he knew how to portray them with authenticity. He and Robert Mitchum became friends during the production.”
— Cherie Elledge-Grapes, Dallas, N.C.
“I remember the producers coming to buy some of their cars from my dad and uncle. I also remember both my dad and uncle having to go to Sandy Bottoms to teach them how to spin the cars out without running them in the river. A federal agent came to our house a few times looking for moonshine, as my family were moonshine runners after World War II.”
— Bill Parris, Asheville
“Perhaps the most exciting event ever to take place at the Sky Club was when Robert Mitchum came to town to star in Thunder Road. The whole town was star-struck, and one scene in the movie was shot in the restaurant. A couple of my friends took the entire week off from work just to be extras in the nightclub scene. Mitchum cut a wide swath [in Asheville]. He and his wife stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, and it was widely rumored that his mistress was staying down the street at the Vanderbilt. Mitchum spent most evenings at the Sky Club, though, drinking, dining and dancing with the ladies who absolutely threw themselves at this tall, handsome movie star. I witnessed more than one violent confrontation precipitated by a husband’s or boyfriend’s jealous rage, but Mitchum was big enough to take care of himself — and, after all, all he was doing was dancing.
— Jerry Sternberg
“I was probably 12 or 13 when the movie was made in Asheville. I remember that some local folks got some bit parts, like the well-known WWNC radio announcer Farmer Russ (Offhaus). I also remember a fellow Boy Scout I met at summer camp who was wearing a neckerchief slide carved from a piece of scrap balsa wood that he said was from some of the debris of a wreck scene in the movie where the car crashed through some rail posts. His dad had some connection with the location shot, I think. A classmate of my older brother at Owen High crashed his ’52 Ford trying to duplicate that 180-degree spin in the scene at the bridge.”
— Steve Norwood, Asheville
“I was an 18–year-old high schooler who ran into Robert Mitchum one night. As teenagers, we ended many of our nights at the Hot Shot Café in Biltmore Village for a late-night grilled cheese sandwich, Coke and a good bull session. All of a sudden, the doors opened wide and in walked Robert Mitchum and his posse. We were all stunned. They said nothing but strolled to a large table. They were a rough-looking crowd and probably had a bit too much to drink. We continued to stare, not saying anything.”
— Stan Cocke, Asheville
“I was present when the sports car club had an autocross event at McCormick Field and Robert Mitchum’s son drove the ’50 Ford being used in the movie through the gate in right field and around the track, causing them to halt the event. The announcer made a very sarcastic remark, and Robert Mitchum left.”
— Jerry King, Asheville
“My uncle was Howard Penland, who was raised north of Weaverville on Ox Creek Road. His wife, Clara, told me years ago that that there was a time when the folks who lived on Ox Creek Road and Reems Creek Road were concerned that there might be an illegal moonshine operation near the Beech community. The reason was that they would occasionally see a hot rod car headed toward Weaverville at a very fast rate of speed. They were relieved when they later learned a movie called Thunder Road was being filmed in the area.”
— Danny Starnes, Black Mountain
“My great-uncle Joe Gouge was a moonshiner out of Mitchell County. Our family surname is used in the movie with the character Stacey Gouge, but the actor mispronounces it. Our name isn’t spoken like it’s spelled, but rhymes with Baton Rouge.”
— Michael Gouge, Asheville
“NASCAR pioneers Fireball Roberts and Banjo Matthews of Asheville and all the guys that were there to build the cars were on the set. There were also a lot of active moonshiners around all the time.”
— Jim Mitchum
Musician Randy Sparks recorded the “Thunder Road” theme song for the movie soundtrack when he was 25 years old and just out of the Navy. He would go on to found the popular 1960s folk-pop group The New Christy Minstrels. Sparks recently shared his memories of the making of the film:
Robert Mitchum saw me on “The Bob Crosby Show” on TV, in uniform, and told his agent, ‘That’s the guy I want to play my kid brother in Thunder Road. I learned many years later that he had probably pulled strings with the secretary of the Navy to get me an early release, and I went from Washington, D.C., to Asheville on my first day as a civilian. I had also been contracted to write and sing songs for the movie, and I had my lead sheets in hand upon arrival. But at the Battery Park Hotel, headquarters of Mitchum’s film company on location, I was told by Bob himself that my assignment had been significantly altered. His 16-year-old son, Jim, had lobbied him to play the acting role, and in the time between when I was contracted and my arrival on location, the title song had already been crafted by veteran songwriter Don Ray, with Mitchum’s collaboration, but I would still be the one to sing it. Bob politely refused to listen to my song titled ‘Thunder Road,’ but he wanted to hear ‘Whippoorwill’ (the alternative title), and he allowed that they might make use of it in a scene later in the film (Keely Smith sings it at the close of the film). I was disappointed, of course, and I had a right to be angry, but maintained a positive attitude. I was, after all, a nobody with zero movie credits, an outsider fully unprepared to combat nepotism, hardly a bona fide actor, so if anything, I probably felt somewhat relieved.
The social ambiance with the cast and crew in the lobby of the Battery Park reminded me of a meat market, and this was terribly disappointing. I had for 18 months in uniform refused to stoop to the level of the traditional image of sailors on liberty in a seaport, and I now felt like walking away. I spied a pretty girl about my age standing in one corner of the sprawling room and looking very much out of place, so I walked over to her and said, “You don’t look pleased to be here.” “I think I’m in the wrong place for the wrong reason,” she replied. “Bob just told me that I would be having a private dinner with him in his room, so that we could go over the script together, and I’m not that kind of girl.” “How would you like to have dinner with me?” I asked. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day,” she said, and I led the way to the hotel’s dining room. Mitchum shortly came along, overtly expressing his dismay, and I thereafter faithfully served as her chaperone. I can assure you that she was untarnished by the evils of Hollywood in the coming weeks, but I had instantly forfeited my billing in the picture. Of course, I didn’t learn this sad fact until much later, and I’m still somewhat amazed that they left in place my vocal performance over the credits, which, by the way, wasn’t necessarily a boon to my musical career. Jack Marshall, the orchestrator, had written the instrumental track two or three keys too high for my voice, and I sound like a castrate. I begged for a change of key, but he refused. ‘We’re already over budget,’ he grumbled.
Chris Mitchum Remembers
Chris Mitchum was just 13 when he first visited Asheville in the 1950s. He was playing the proverbial kid-brother role at the time, tagging along, as it were, with his father, actor Robert Mitchum, and his big brother, James. I recently asked Chris Mitchum what he remembered most about the making of the movie. He told me that one thing he recalled was the technical people who worked on it. “The advisers were interesting,” he said. “There was a Col. Tom Bailey, I think it was, from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I remember him saying that, at the time, the manufacture of illegal alcohol was one of the top 10 businesses in the United States. Bigger than the Chrysler Corp. Two out of every three bottles sold in the U.S. were counterfeit. There was a 500-gallon working still on the set run by real moonshiners. They and the colonel all knew each other. The colonel said that the moonshiners were very honorable people. They would do just about anything to not get caught, but, once caught and told when to be in court, they showed up.”
Chris Mitchum said that when the film was over, his father asked if he could have the still, and Bailey said yes. However, it never arrived. “I suspect Col. Bailey may have given it to one of the moonshiners,” he said. “The car stunts in the movie were all driving maneuvers that the runners used to escape,” Mitchum told me.
“There was the instance when legendary Hollywood stunt driver Carey Loftin drove into two cars facing each other to block the road,” Chris Mitchum recounted. “He hit them at 80 miles per hour, and the damage to his car was much worse than expected. When his car came to a stop, everyone ran to it to see how badly he was hurt. When we got there, he rolled down his window, a cigarette in his mouth, and said, ‘Anyone got a light?’ It’s been said that Thunder Road is the film that started serious car stunts in movies.” Loftin went on to work on The French Connection, Grand Prix, Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Duel, and Days of Thunder.
One of the most vivid memories the then-adolescent Mitchum recalls is the evening he and his father went to dinner with Keely Smith. Smith, who played Robert Mitchum’s love interest in the movie, was a Grammy Award-winning jazz and pop singer in the ’50s. She sang “Whippoorwill” on the Thunder Road soundtrack. “My father said he was going into the bedroom to get ready. ‘If Keely arrives, offer her a drink,’ he told me. About 10 minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and it was Keely. I offered her a drink and she said, ‘What’s there?’ My dad kept a fairly complete bar. There was even moonshine from the working still. Keely opted for that. I put some ice in the hotel glass and poured a little shine. ‘Fill it up,’ she told me, so, OK, I did. The shine was incredibly smooth, and by the time my father walked out of his room, she had already finished it. ‘Ready?’ he asked her. ‘Ready,” she said. She stood up, and then fell over. She was out cold. My dad was horrified when I told him what she had drunk. He picked her up, put her on the couch, and he and I went to dinner.”
Postscript: If you see the movie, watch for the scene where some country boys are playing music outside a general store. The kid in the back playing the washboard is Chris Mitchum. “It was my first acting role,” he said. “It paid $10.”
Joe Elliott is a writer and educator living in Asheville. He wishes to thank to everyone who contributed to this article, and offer a special thanks to Michael Gouge at UNC Asheville for helping identify location shootings from the film.