Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): Michael Cimino’s Feature Directorial Debut

In 1971, Cimino moved to Los Angeles to start a career as a screenwriter.  According to Cimino, it was Joann Carrelli that got him into screenwriting: “I’d never really written anything ever before. I still don’t regard myself as a writer. I’ve probably written thirteen to fourteen screenplays by 1978 and I still don’t think of myself that way.”

He began writing screenplays because he didn’t have the money to buy books or to option properties. As he recalled: “At that time, you only had a chance to direct if you owned a screenplay which some star wanted to do, and that’s precisely what happened with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Cimino gained representation from Stan Kamen of William Morris Agency.  He co-wrote two scripts, the sci-fi Silent Running and Clint Eastwood’s second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force.

Cimino’s work on Magnum Force impressed Eastwood enough to acquire Cimino’s spec script, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, for Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso.

In this tale, Eastwood plays a Korean War vet named “Thunderbolt,” a prison escapee who takes a young drifter named “Lightfoot” (Jeff Bridges) under his wing.

When Thunderbolt’s old partners in crime (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) try to find him, he and Lightfoot make a pact with them to pull one last big heist at Montana Armory. Their goal is to recover a loot hidden from an earlier theft, but, unfortunately, somebody has built a building over the stash.

Well-constructed, the film was satisfying as a character-driven action drama, laced with a healthy dosage of humor.

Initially, Eastwood planned to direct it himself, but Cimino impressed him with his ambition and he gave him the chance to direct.

Made on a modest budget of $4 million, the film became a box office success, grossing $25,000,000 at the box office.

Stealing the show, Jeff Bridges received a second Oscar nomination in the supporting league; the first was for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in 1971.

Eastwood served as mentor to Cimino, ever since the latter had written the script for the second chapter of Dirty Harry saga, Magnum Force, in 1973.