Progress — that’s what Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is about. The buddy dramedy is about more than that, of course, from women-chasing to bank-robbing to cross-dressing. Five years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood’s stoic Thunderbolt and Jeff Bridges’ anything-but-stoic Lightfoot came closer to capturing the same verve and tragedy of American rebelliousness than most films in the ensuing forty years. It’s part road flick, part heist flick, part character study. In the simplest sense Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a drive-in movie, complete with laughs and adventure and car chases and a few explosions for good measure; in a more complex light Michael Cimino’s directorial debut yearns for the American Dream, for satisfaction greater than that offered by everyday life, for an accomplishment, for progress.
The comparison with George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy isn’t borne entirely of the fact that the protagonists are a pair of BFF criminals, and Lightfoot even takes direct issue with that label — “criminals” — before the final credits roll. Butch and Sundance are battling against the death of the West they love, the West in which they thrive. Bigger guns, bigger armies, bigger bank vaults — the world’s changing whether they like it or not. Still, it’s their own perception of the world that really matters, especially in Butch’s case. “I’ve got vision,” he tells the Kid, “and the rest of the world needs bifocals.”
We half-joked in our review of Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman that Sonny Steele is like the Sundance Kid born a few decades too late. Surprisingly enough, it’s the childlike Lightfoot who more fully calls to mind the “gang leader” Butch Cassidy. There’s something self-referential in both characters, something about the way Butch seems to view the partnership between himself and the Kid that’s mirrored in Jeff Bridges’ gleeful young drifter. “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” he says aloud once he learns his companion’s name. “That sounds like something!” Butch and Lightfoot would probably enjoy the films of their respective exploits, laughing riotously along with each unlawful run-in, whereas Thunderbolt and the Sundance Kid would squirm through the whole thing or just walk out.
But just as the comparison between the two films is (hopefully) more than skin-deep, it’s also not ironclad. Lightfoot is more of an unpredictable type, more of a presence within the context of his movie, and that’s an intentional aspect of the film’s theme of progress. “You Indian?” asks Thunderbolt when he hears the unusual name. “Nope,” says Lightfoot, “just American.” He’s tied with the American Dream from the opening scene, but his quest is either more subtle than most or it’s simply one he himself doesn’t fully understand. He likes to spend money if he can get it and doesn’t care how he gets it as long as it doesn’t cost him too much. His wisdom is almost entirely cobbled together from conventional aphorisms — “In for a penny, in for a pound!”; “A rolling stone gathers no moss!”; “You can lead a mule to water but you can’t make him drink it!” — and he shrugs and attributes each “pearl of wisdom” to books written by other people. He recklessly applies these cliched sayings to anything Thunderbolt questions. When the duo hitchhike in an insane man’s heap of junk Lightfoot exclaims “Beggars can’t be choosers!” as he dives in nose-first; once inside the car he concedes the point: “Okay. This guy’s a basket case.”
Perhaps a more significant distinction between Butch/Sundance and Thunderbolt/Lightfoot is the generational gap between the duo. Lightfoot recognizes wisdom in his older companion and latches on to him in much the same way as he latches on to time-tested cliches. Again, he does so in such a haphazard manner that it doesn’t always make sense. When the pair seek out an old one-room schoolhouse where Thunderbolt has supposedly stored the loot from an old heist, they find a gleaming new educational complex standing where the little old school used to be. When Lightfoot asks what happened, Thunderbolt grits his teeth: “Progress.” Later, Lightfoot borrows someone’s truck and rides alongside a pretty girl on a motorcycle. He makes a pass at her, prompting her to produce a hammer. She proceeds to beat the hell out of the side of the truck, but when someone raises the question later — “Where’d you get the dents?” — Lightfoot pounces as if he’s had the answer ready for hours: “Progress.”
When the duo finally find the schoolhouse, having been transported to a new site, the sign outside drives the point home:
“…evokes a vision of vanished America.” That America is the same one Butch and Sundance knew and loved, one populated by free-spirited drifters. Lightfoot, dim-witted though he may ultimately be, was right to shrug off the term “criminal”. Criminals are still roaming around the country as they were in Ye Olde Americana — but maybe it’s just a different kind of criminal, less villain and more scoundrel, that’s evaporated from the landscapes of modern society.
Both Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are terrified of this whether they realize it or not. Michael Cimino, in structuring his feature debut, allowed this uneasiness to seep through without putting too fine a point on it. It’s notable that the duo engage in cycles, despite their talk of progress and moving forward — Lightfoot states the same proverbs again and again and repeats the occasional wisdom from Thunderbolt, while Thunderbolt himself undertakes the exact same heist of the exact same company he robbed years ago. It’s almost unconscious on the part of both characters, as if they’re comfortable in the way things are and refuse to step into a more modern time.
Cimino would play with this theme again and again during his career, but in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot he captured both the brilliance and the tragedy in such a notion. After all, progress sounds like such a good thing, doesn’t it? Sometimes it is. But progress often diminishes or demeans or even destroys whatever stood in the original spot, and the word seems to imply not just “change” but “change for the better“. In a way, Lightfoot was right about that, too — progress can be change for the better, or it can be change for the worse, or it can just be sweeping, indiscriminate, unyielding change, a world with no place for scoundrels, a schoolhouse on a new street, dents in the side of a truck.