One of the all-time great drive-in movies and probably the best film you’ll every see about Tennessee moonshines and their midnight runners, Thunder Road (1958) was written by, produced by, and starred Robert Mitchum. The film’s original story follows the Doolin family’s shine-entangled way of life in the East Tennessee hills. Lucas Doolin, played by Robert Mitchum, transports shine for the family bootlegging business. Lucas is determined to keep his younger brother, Robin Doolin (played by Robert Mitchum’s son, James), away from the family business to continue his education and stay out of trouble. An already tumultuous relationship with rival bootlegger and gangster Carl Kogan, played by Jacques Aubuchon, turns ugly when Kogan lures Robin into running shine covertly in the heat of the prohibition era. A fatal crash into several west Knoxville power station serves as the film’s electrifying finale.
Take a step back in time to discover more about the history of Prohibition, local moonshiners, and the timeless legend of Thunder Road.
Robert Mitchum, writer, producer, and star of the film Thunder Road, is born in Bridgeport, CT. He played the lead role of Lucas Doolin in the film, and he sang the title song, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”
Prohibition, also known as “The Noble Experiment,” is one step closer to becoming a reality as the 18th Amendment is passed by Congress. Section 1 of the Amendment states: “…the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” is prohibited. This also banned liquor from being imported to, or exported from, the United States.
The 18th Amendment is ratified, making it an operative component of the Constitution.
The 18th Amendment officially goes into effect. While Prohibition was expected to help the American economy and citizens, it soon backfired. Jobs and businesses were lost, restaurants and theaters lost revenue, and the government lost $11 billion in excise tax revenue. Crime rates didn’t fall; in fact, they increased. An average of 1,000 Americans died annually during Prohibition due to illegal alcohol that contained poisons from poor manufacturing.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected the 32nd President of the United States. He ran with a platform that pledged to end Prohibition.
Ike Costner, one of the largest moonshine distributors in East Tennessee, is on the first trainload of convicts sent to newly opened Alcatraz.
The 21st Amendment is ratified, putting an end to Prohibition. The 18th Amendment becomes the first constitutional amendment ever repealed.
James Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum, is born in Los Angeles, CA. He eventually played the role of Robin Doolin (Lucas Doolin’s younger brother) in Thunder Road.
“On the first of April, 1954…” This is the date of the fatal crash in the film, Thunder Road, as well as the date of the alleged crash and death of Kentucky moonshiner, Tweedle-o-twill. Could the two be connected?
Rufus Gunter, a moonshine runner, dies when his car goes off a bridge and into a river after being chased down Asheville Highway by the police. Could he have been a source of inspiration for Mitchum’s film?
NASCAR legend Junior Johnson is arrested right as he lights a fire under his father’s moonshine still. Johnson served 11 months of a 2 year sentence. He is quoted saying, “moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will.”
Filming of Thunder Road begins.
Thunder Road is released. A quarter of a century after its release, the hit film was still generating generous ticket revenue from drive-ins in the Southern states.
The enactment of Mississippi’s Local Option Laws provides each county in the state the right to vote on their own liquor laws. Several states maintained statewide temperance laws for a time, but Mississippi was the last dry state to end Prohibition.
Robert Mitchum passes away in Santa Barbara, CA.
Thunder Road is released on DVD. It was previously released on home video in the end of the 1980s.
Local moonshine legend and author of autobiography Me and My Likker, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, is sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for illegal distilling of spirits and possession of a firearm as a felon. Sutton took his own life two days before he was supposed to report to prison.
Thunder Road Distillery opens in Kodak, Tennessee.