In 1958, Robert Mitchum took a personal interest in mountain moonshine lore when he wrote, produced, co-directed and starred in the movie, “Thunder Road.” As if that wasn’t enough, Mitchum also wrote and recorded the theme song for the movie, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”
The story for both is based on information gleaned from actual cases investigated by the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) - a forerunner of the ATF. Mitchum and a drinking buddy, James Atlee Phillips (brother of CIA agent David Atlee Phillips) poured over ATU records in search of a tale filled with authentic daredevil details. They ended up with nine pages worth of information to show potential investors, whom Mitchum eventually persuaded to fork over some cash for his pet project.
The plot wraps itself around a Harlan County, Kentucky moonshiner, Lucas Doolin, newly returned from the Korean War. The battle-jaded hero steps back into his role as bootlegger with the air of one who doesn’t give a damn whether he lives or dies. Since he’s running up against both the Feds and a local mobster, this attitude serves him well.
Both the song and the movie have Doolin leaving his old Kentucky home and making his way to Knoxville. That’s where the song ends, with the driver meeting his end after the Feds chase him and he wrecks his car in a fiery crash. In the movie version the driver’s demise was also fiery. After hitting a steel spiked “whammy” thrown across the road by the Feds, Doolin’s car rolls into an electrical substation.
However, the movie has him wrecking his 1957 Ford a little farther west though, okay, a lot farther west, in Memphis. That actually doesn’t make much sense since ridgerunners had a specific territory they covered. Not only would the sheer distance from Harlan to Memphis have made the trip improbable, the lack of interstate highways over the mountains would have made the standard overnight run completely impossible. Mitchum probably chose Memphis for the film version as a tribute to Elvis, who turned down the veteran actor’s invitation to play Doolin’s younger brother in the movie. Mitchum’s son, Jim, was eventually cast in the part because the King’s asking price would have eaten most of the movie’s modest budget.
Although the movie changes the final destination, Knoxvillians have chosen to ignore that little detail. In fact, they may not even be consciously aware it was the song, not the movie that linked “Thunder Road” to Knoxville. Although in all fairness, Knoxville is mentioned seven times in the film.
Over the years, movie, song and local happenings have comingled to where it is nearly impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Residents of East Tennessee claim the movie, which achieved regional cult status, as their own. They will argue the point with anyone who cares to listen. Almost everyone in Knox County had a friend, relative or acquaintance in “the third car back” from the original crash despite the fact that there is no surviving documentation that it even occurred as Mitchum portrayed it.
Although the picture’s plot was full of holes big enough throw a cat through, there were plenty of car chase scenes, daring moonshiner exploits, and grand explosions to keep Southern audiences coming back year after year. What’s more, Mitchum himself was the definitive tough guy. His presence alone meant decent box office dollars despite lackluster performances by supporting cast members.
And “whoa, be it” to the sorry soul who would dare suggest that the real driver was from anywhere else other than from Harlan. Although evidence suggests otherwise.
When asked about the identity of the man depicted in Thunder Road, veteran ATF agent, Grant McGarity, replied, “He was from Cocke County.”
Not exactly a big surprise.
Although McGarity wouldn’t divulge any other details, I didn’t have to take his word for it. A call from Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper confirmed not only the origin of the driver, but his name as well.
“Thunder Road was based on a man named Rufus Gunter,” Hooper said, “He didn’t die like Mitchum’s character, but he certainly lived like him.”
Gunter was a legendary whiskey runner from none-other-than Cocke County. He died in December 1955 after running his car off the J. Will Taylor Bridge which crossed the Holston River in east Knox County. Before his death, Gunter raced stock cars and Hooper got to ride with him when he was a young boy.
“I remember my Uncle George Poe taking me to see Rufus Gunter race in Knoxville,” Hooper said, “He talked him into giving me a ride. He drove a ‘37 or ‘38 Ford. I remember the car had no passenger seat so I sat down low on the floor. The car bounced all over. I was scared to death. I wouldn’t say it was a good experience.”
Several others have pointed the finger at Gunter being the role model for the daring Doolin and the empty Ford would have made the perfect hauler. Ronnie Moore, son of East Tennessee racing hall of fame legend Ralph Burdette “Duck” Moore said his dad knew Gunter well. The two of them raced against one another at various tracks in the South throughout the 40’s and into the early 50’s until Gunter’s death took him out of the circuit. Running moonshine was a great training program for racers. Just ask early NASCAR drivers like Junior Johnson.
Also during my investigation into the identity of the Thunder Road driver, I received two anonymous letters both naming Gunter.
The author of the first letter claimed to be a descendent of Gunter’s uncle. The writer said the young man’s father, Pinkney Gunter, made moonshine in a place called Mountain Rest in upper Cosby in Cocke County.
“After Rufus’ death,” the writer said, “the family was approached by Mitchum’s people about making a movie based on their son’s exploits. At first, his father refused, but, eventually, his mother did sign the release.”
In the second letter, the 84-year-old author once again confirmed Gunter’s identity and adds, “The revenuers chased him so fast that he ran off the highway into the lake under the bridge at Swan’s Boat Dock. I went to the lake to watch when they were dragging it for his body.”
The writer also claimed Gunter was also born about 1920. That would have made him 33 when his life ended during his final moonshine run, which would fit with Mitchum’s character. So although the movie probably isn’t a portrayal of actual events, it may not be that far off in the general sense.
Thunder Road isn’t actually a road at all. It’s a term coined by the Feds denoting an ongoing pursuit of any moonshiner worth chasing. And although Mitchum’s movie may conclude with a different ending than that of Rufus Gunter, the legend of the man who inspired the film will live forever on Thunder Road.