It's hard to describe the visceral jolt this film gives to anyone brought up in the South or to anyone who appreciates hot rods.
Unfortunately, my dad died shortly before this film came out or it would have been his favorite film. Raised in a poor sharecropper's family in Clay County, Kentucky, during the Depression, he and his brothers drove souped-up "tankers" running moon throughout Ky, Tenn and Virginia before and after they served in combat in WW2 and Korea. From their description of those rowdy days, THUNDER ROAD is as brutally accurate as can be. Not only were the dreaded T-Men a major hazard, with their brutal tactics, but the various families that cooked the "moon" and distributed it often had blood feuds that were resurrected or exacerbated by their competition for the illegal whisky business. The longest running feud in US history, the century-long White-Baker Feud (also called the Clay County Wars) was resurrected due to the two clans' competition in tanking the moon throughout Appalachia.
Inherently a sad but realistic work, Mitchum's excellent performance and an honest, understated script give us a snapshot of an American way of life that few outside of the rural South could ever comprehend. The culture of individualism and freedom from Federal oppression is much less today, but still exists. I believe the reason this film is such a huge cult film in the South is that it reminds us that not too long ago many of our ancestors were still willing to take on the tyrant face to face. We are, alas, just a pale copy of those who went before.
Truly one of the most under-appreciated films of the 50s, due in no small part to the overwhelmingly Yankee composition of the critics' circles. They couldn't possibly understand the film. It's a Southern thing.