A Montana Made Movie I Missed in the 70s

I didn’t see Thunderbolt and Lightfoot when it first came out – and later I spent several years working along the highline where it was filmed.  It showed up on youtube – free to view if you’re willing to put up with ads – and, with the familiarity with the area, and the fact that I was in my early 20’s when it was filmed, I enjoyed a Clint Eastwood movie that I hadn’t seen.

The movie starts with Clint preaching a sermon – only to be interrupted by a guy trying to shoot him with a broomhandle Mauser.

Dad had told a story about pre-revolution Chinese officials shooting out his tires with Brooms in China before I was born – I’m not sure the Marine sergeant that pulled him out of the jam wasn’t the source of my name “Michael.”  So it starts with a church I’ve seen, and Eastwood under fire from a gun I enjoyed rebuilding in the late eighties – until Bill Clinton froze my source of Chinese Broomhandles.  If I’m remembering correctly, the old church in Hobson was taken down in the eighties, and moved (either in part or total) to Troy – but memory is a fickle thing.

The cars – first Thunderbolt and Lightfoot liberate a 72 Buick Riviera.  Dad had one – the same tan color (the one pictured looks a lot nicer).  The guy who was trying to shoot Eastwood with the broomhandle was driving a 51 Mercury club coupe – in high school and college, I drove a 50.  Gerald Johnson gave me a transmission from his 51 when that engine blew.  I’d never realized that my car choices were so close to Eastwood’s.

While I was working in Chinook, I met a deputy whose Model 29 Smith had Eastwood’s autograph on the butt.  Not a bad thing, but he had added a bunch of clear sealant to protect the autograph, and couldn’t get the grips off when the bloody thing went out of time.  A Clint Eastwood autograph undoubtedly has value – but I really like having a firm belief that my revolver will be in time, and go bang, when I squeeze the trigger.

Then there was the gun that gave Clint’s character the name “Thunderbolt”.  So help me, a 20 mm Oerlikon.  The most produced anti aircraft cannon of World War II.  Responsible for almost half the Japanese aircraft shot down during the war.  Dad’s comment was that he got nervous when the 20 millimeters opened fire – those Japanese planes were too close to his ship.  Still, the Oerlikon was the late war Kamikaze killer.

Clint was using the Oerlikon to create an opening in the bank vault.  Now the Oerlikon is the only cannon I know of that fires from blowback – like a 22.  Like a Hi-Point.  I’m kind of accustomed to some sort of locked breech even in pistol calibers – but the Oerlikon firing pin hits the primer before that 50 pound breechblock even closes.  I mean, yes, it was the most common cannon in the US Fleet – but a 20 mm cannon just seems a little too much for blowback.

I’m pretty sure the schoolhouse where the loot was hidden is alongside the highway by Saco.  If you drive by on highway 2, look for it.  I liked the scenes in Fort Benton – the trees have grown since 1972, but it’s still identifiable.  Great Falls, over 50 years, has seen a lot of rebuilding.  Still, if you have spent time in central Montana and along the High Line, I hope you can enjoy the old movie as much as I.  I do wish that I had been able to watch it with Dad – and put the movie on pause to talk about everything we would have recognized.

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