Asheville has been the site of several movies, but only one, Thunder Road, has had a lasting impact on American culture. The 1958 movie gave a whole new meaning to the words “thunder and lightning.” It launched the muscle car era in America and introduced the world to mountain moonshine or “White Lightning”! Fast cars thundering through winding mountain roads running bootleg whisky served as the beginning from which NASCAR has grown into one of the premiere American sports.
The hot spot in Asheville in the fifties was the Sky Club, best described as a Supper Club—dinner, drinks, and dancing. At that time, liquor by the drink was illegal, but the Sky Club was not always very strict in that regard. However, when Government Revenuers were onsite, they only sold ice and setups. According to Asheville resident and historian, Jerry Sternberg, the most exciting event ever to take place at the Sky Club was when Robert Mitchum came to town to star in Thunder Road. “The whole town was star-struck, and one scene in the movie was shot in the restaurant. A couple of my friends took the entire week off from work just to be extras in the nightclub scene. Mitchum cut a wide swath [in Asheville]. He and his wife stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, and it was widely rumored that his mistress was staying down the street at the Vanderbilt. Mitchum spent most evenings at the Sky Club, though, drinking, dining, and dancing with the ladies who absolutely threw themselves at this tall, handsome movie star. I witnessed more than one violent confrontation precipitated by a husband’s or boyfriend’s jealous rage, but Mitchum was big enough to take care of himself — and, after all, all he was doing was dancing.”
In Thunder Road, Robert Mitchum’s character is a tough, resourceful veteran of the Korean War who returns home to carry on with the family business of making and running moonshine through the mountains. He must do battle with government agents intent on squelching the illicit trade, and at the same time, he has to deal with syndicate thugs out of Memphis looking to horn in on the business. The movie is reflective of the Scotch-Irish traditions for moonshining and fierce independence. Mitchum’s character lives by the “don’t tread on me” principle of personal freedom and self-reliance. He is portrayed as a peace-loving man with a long fuse, but he will only be pushed so far before pushing back. He insists on being his own man and living strictly by his own rules.