‘Thunder Bay’: Oil Rigging in Louisiana

Director Anthony Mann’s film gives a balanced perspective on environmental matters.
‘Thunder Bay’: Oil Rigging in Louisiana
Steve (James Stewart, R) and Gambi (Dan Duryea) embody the American can-do spirit in “Thunder Bay.” (Universal Pictures)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 43m | Adventure, Drama | 1953

In the early 1950s, the talented director Anthony Mann took a successful detour into the world of Westerns, crafting films like “Winchester ‘73” and “The Man From Laramie.” These films not only solidified Mann’s reputation but also propelled legendary actor James Stewart into the highest echelons of the genre.

However, Mann was astute enough to use Stewart’s talent in films that initially facilitated his rise to stardom—contemporary dramas such as “The Glenn Miller Story” and “Strategic Air Command.”

One of his more unconventional endeavors was 1953’s “Thunder Bay,” which stands out for its intriguing setting—a coastal town named Port Felicity, Louisiana.

Dominique Rigaud (Antonio Moreno) and Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), in "Thunder Bay." (Universal Pictures)
Dominique Rigaud (Antonio Moreno) and Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), in "Thunder Bay." (Universal Pictures)

The story starts with two men walking a dusty Louisiana road. Steve (Stewart) and Gambi (Dan Duryea) are Navy veterans returning from World War II service overseas. They hope to use their military-acquired engineering skills to establish an oil rig business.

Teche Bossier (Gilbert Roland) picks up Steve and Gambi in his beat-up pickup truck and takes them into Port Felicity, where Bossier runs a shrimping company. In town, Steve and Gambi quickly convince a gullible shrimp boat skipper, Dominique Rigaud (Antonio Moreno), to take them out to sea so that they can do some oil prospecting. However, Rigaud’s eldest daughter, Stella (Joanne Dru), has reservations about the men’s intentions.

The aspiring prospectors receive a significant boost when beleaguered oil company president Kermit MacDonald (Jay C. Flippen) arrives on the scene. Leveraging his innate charm and desperation-fueled ambition, Steve delivers an impressive sales pitch to MacDonald, persuading him to back their entrepreneurial plans.

Now armed with funding from MacDonald, Steve and Gambi enlist Bossier’s assistance to commence surveying oil near the port, a process that involves the planting and detonation of charges beneath the seabed.

Teche Bossier (Gilbert Roland) and Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), in “Thunder Bay.” (Universal Pictures)
Teche Bossier (Gilbert Roland) and Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), in “Thunder Bay.” (Universal Pictures)

Upon realizing the destructive impact of the surveying process (Bossier assumes that all of the shrimp will be destroyed and will never repopulate), he turns his boat around and returns to port. There, he tells the other shrimpers that Steve and Gambi are self-serving and indifferent to Port Felicity’s well-being.

This creates a division within the small shrimping community, pitting those embracing technological progress and innovation—represented by Steve and Gambi—against those clinging to old-school methods of net trawling for shrimp, led by Bossier.

As Stella begins to warm up to Steve, their budding relationship creates tension, particularly with Bossier, who is romantically involved with her. Adding to the turmoil, Gambi’s involvement with Stella’s younger sister Francesca (Marcia Henderson) further complicates matters, as she’s dating Bossier’s bosom buddy, Phillipe Bayard (Robert Monet).

The film delves into the genuine conflict between the era’s local Louisiana fishermen and the burgeoning oil rigging industry. However, it skillfully avoids finger-wagging and a condescending tone often present in contemporary films and allows the story to unfold without a heavy-handed agenda.

Instead, the film adopts a patriotic stance, highlighting the role that oil had in modernizing the United States, along with many other countries worldwide. The film also celebrates America’s can-do entrepreneurial spirit, portraying Steve and Gambi as embodiments of millions of Americans who—through free-market capitalism, shrewd ingenuity, and sheer force of will—manifest their dreams while helping others.

Jay C. Flippen plays embattled businessman Kermit MacDonald, in “Thunder Bay.” (Universal Pictures)
Jay C. Flippen plays embattled businessman Kermit MacDonald, in “Thunder Bay.” (Universal Pictures)

However, the film doesn’t necessarily swing in the direction of blind technological progress, either. It opts for a more balanced perspective, where progress (the oilmen) share the stage with established traditions (the local fishermen).

Mann skillfully presents a nuanced portrayal of two seemingly irreconcilable sides in “Thunder Bay.” The film is elevated by the incredible talents of Stewart, complemented by the fast-talking charisma of Duryea, who is known for memorable roles, including one of the antagonists in “Winchester ‘73”. The setting along the Louisiana coastline also provides a refreshing departure from the dust-parched deserts of Mann’s Westerns.

“Thunder Bay” is an entertaining drama that features fantastic performances, some harrowing drama and conflict, and a satisfying climax that provides a balanced and hopeful perspective on natural resources and progress.

“Thunder Bay,” is available on The Digital Archive and Amazon.
‘Thunder Bay’ Director: Anthony Mann Starring: James Stewart, Joanne Dru, Gilbert Roland Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes Release Date: May 20, 1953 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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