Release Date(s)1988 (December 16, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
A number of films about returning Vietnam veterans made their way to theater screens in the 1970s and 1980s. Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, Rolling Thunder, First Blood, and The Deer Hunter all explored the problems that veterans faced in readjusting to civilian life after their horrifying wartime experiences. The lesser known Distant Thunder is the story of a Vietnam vet who tries to reconnect with a son he hasn’t seen in over ten years.
Mark Lambert (John Lithgow, The World According to Garp) lives on a remote mountain in a Pacific Northwest rain forest as a “bush vet,” with three other men who served in Vietnam. They make as little contact with other people as possible and have come together in an unspoken understanding of what it’s like to be haunted by awful memories, scarred by their experiences in war.
After the suicide of one of the vets, Mark decides to get his life together and looks for work at a nearby logging company. The company’s office manager, Char (Kerrie Keane), empathizes with him because her father was a veteran. She recognizes his inner turmoil and makes sure he gets hired. Learning that he has an 18-year-old son son he hasn’t seen in years, Char suggests that he write to him. Mark struggles with this idea but finally does manage a brief letter and sends it.
When his son, Jack (Ralph Macchio, The Karate Kid), receives the letter, he notes the return address and sets off to meet his estranged dad. The meeting does not go well. Mark has retreated to his squalid home in the rain forest. Jack convinces Char to lead him to his father’s lair and is taken aback by his primitive living conditions and volatile companions. Father and son act awkwardly toward each other. Excuses are made, hurts aired, questions asked. All the while, it’s apparent that Mark is trying his best to connect despite his inability to voice why he abandoned his wife and son.
A sub-plot involves jealousy. Mark’s co-worker and Char’s boyfriend, Moss (Jamey Sheridan), mistakes her interest in Mark as romantic and, armed with a rifle, pursues him up the mountain. This mobilizes Mark’s bush-vet friends Larry (Denis Arndt) and Harvey (Reb Brown) into action as they protect their turf, using skills learned in the military.
Lithgow is exceptional as Mark, playing the laconic role with a sad, expressive face and hesitant, jumpy body language to show what the character is thinking. He conveys beautifully Mark’s disappointments, sensitivity, defensive manner, and longing to form a bond with his son. He speaks softly and deliberately, using as few words as possible, as if he’s gotten out of the habit of talking to people. Mark is haunted by one particular harrowing experience during the war that’s impossible for him to shake. Sudden noises startle him and he doesn’t like to be touched or grabbed.
Macchio is fine as Jack but fails to inject adequate emotion into the role. The script indicates that Jack insists on driving across the country to meet his estranged father, yet after he finds him, an initial coolness never thaws until nearly the fade-out. The film is Mark’s story, of course, but Jack is an integral part of the tale and a stronger performance is needed.
Arndt, as Larry, provides some comic relief in this somber story with his character’s unexpected outbursts, weird sense of humor, and uncontrolled laughter. Interestingly, Arndt served as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, which may have added a touch of stark realism to his portrayal.
Director Rick Rosenthal opens the film with a bloody firefight that shows the dangers of jungle warfare and the moment-to-moment horrors of death and dying. This prologue underscores how devastating and pervasive are the effects and after-effects of war. Rosenthal nicely shows the camaraderie of the bush vets. They accept each other for who they are because they understand, as only a fellow vet can, what they’ve all been through.
The screenplay by Robert Stitzel has its drawbacks. It seems unlikely that Jack’s mother (Janet Margolin) would let her son head off alone to find a father he hasn’t known. Mark’s volatility is established in a few scenes in which we realize he can kill a person with his bare hands unless he holds back or is restrained. A character we’ve seen only fleetingly shows up in the third act to move the plot forward and allow Mark to become heroic. Some viewers may find the ending disappointing, since it doesn’t wrap the story up in typical Hollywood style. We never quite know for sure whether Mark and Jack will fully reconnect because Mark’s post-traumatic demons are so deep-rooted.
Distant Thunder was shot by director of photography Ralf Bode on 35 mm film with Panaflex cameras and lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Imprint Blu-ray features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The opening sequence, set in Vietnam in 1969, has a yellowish tint as Mark and his fellow soldiers make their way through the jungle. This creates a sense of unreality as it sets this section of the film apart from the present-day story. Men’s faces are blackened so they don’t stand out. As day turns to night, the image is very dark with only enough light to make out movement of the men. Explosions and machine-gun fire create bursts of bright light and appear to emerge from total blackness. In the modern story, the Pacific Northwest is a lush, rich green, with billowing white mist, and extends as far as the eye can see. Complexions are registered naturally, though Mark has a scruffy appearance, wild hair, and an unkempt beard.
Two soundtrack options are available, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 LPCM. There are also optional English subtitles. An early scene of two helicopters flying toward and over the camera beautifully shows off the disc’s multi-channel capacity. Unfortunately, later scenes don’t lend themselves to such movement as they focus on characters center screen as they speak. A loud explosion breaks the silence in a scene set at night during the Vietnam War. Sound effects of people climbing and making their way through thick rain forest vegetation are often the only noises heard in certain scenes, which add a sense of impending danger. Maurice Jarre’s score captures a sense of loneliness and sadness and is used sparingly, with silence dominating some scenes.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by David J. Moore
- Theatrical Trailer (2:19)
In his commentary, author David J. Moore notes that in doing research for other books, he was led to several films related to Vietnam veterans. He interviewed multiple vets in anticipation of writing another book but eventually abandoned the project. It was in the course of this research that he discovered Distant Thunder. Shot on a modest budget in a fishing town in Vancouver and employing some Canadian actors, the film casts John Lithgow in an atypical, very physical role. The film deals with the vets’ “post-stress reaction” to returning home and how they react to their trauma. The men who live together in the woods are not friends but are “on the same page.” The story by Deedee Wehle is based on an actual Vietnam vet, possibly her father. After spending time with Vietnam veterans, director Rick Rosenthal took on the project. There’s a demon haunting the bush vets; they’re like “walking time bombs”—very dangerous. The film’s stunt coordinators are given an appreciative shout-out. Career overviews of the actors are provided. By the end of the 1980s, Vietnam movies were tapering off. Moore notes that the lesson to be learned is: Don’t mess with a vet. He considers Distant Thunder an underrated film.
Distant Thunder has a melancholy tone as we see that war can inflict injury apart from bullets. John Lithgow’s superb, underplayed performance illustrates the tragedy of war on not only the individual, but on family as well.
- Dennis Seuling