WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) – Some readers have been asking for non-Christmas blog posts, so here we go with a review of this Burt Reynolds movie back before he settled in to lazily being a clownish parody of himself. Back when he was still legitimately a film star who could play things seriously.
In White Lightning Reynolds was at his dead-serious, dangerous best as an Arkansas convict who starts out the movie with just a year and a half left in his prison term for running moonshine whiskey aka “white lightning.” For the benefit of overseas readers or for readers in their teens or twenties let me take a moment to add some background on the illegal liquor business.
Moonshine liquor was illegal because not only were no taxes paid on the sale of the alcoholic product but because its illicit manufacture meant there were no safety standards. Anti-freeze or other fluids might have been used as ingredients, plus if you’ve ever seen an illegal still there might be drowned rats or squirrels that needed skimmed off the top of the vat from time to time.
In large cities bootleg liquor sales have always been associated with big-time criminal operations which run extensive distribution systems, but in rural, sparsely populated regions with miles of country highways between towns maverick drivers were often the best means of transporting the contraband. The American South was one of those latter locales.
The ties that NASCAR has historically had to the south includes the way some NASCAR drivers of decades ago got their earliest daredevil driving experiences as moonshine runners evading the police through high speeds and stunt driving.
And that brings us back to White Lightning and to Burt Reynolds’ role as Bobby “Gator” McClusky. He’s a skilled moonshine runner who happened to get caught. The movie opens with a scene featuring Gator’s tied-up younger brother and a friend getting floated into the swamps and dumped to drown by corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty) and a few of his deputies.
A family member visits McClusky at the Arkansas prison and informs him of his brother’s fate and how word has it he ran afoul of the crooked lawman Connors. Eaten up with a desire for revenge, Gator makes an escape attempt which gets thwarted, so he offers to do the unthinkable: cooperate with the federal investigators who have been unsuccessfully trying to bring down Sheriff Connors and his criminal operation for years.
McClusky is soon briefed and let loose to infiltrate the Connors mob, compile evidence of the outfit’s criminal activity, especially regarding moonshine, and send him to prison. Even Gator’s mother and father disapprove of their son’s plans, so deep does resentment run toward “revenuers” and those stool pigeons who cooperate with them. Bobby is determined to avenge his brother’s death, however.
Our hero gets busy in the faraway county run by Sheriff Connors, where he hangs around joints letting it be known he can run moonshine if anyone’s looking for drivers. From there Gator works his way along, meeting all the key personnel in the crooked lawman’s network, including the gangsters he’s in bed with.
Ned Beatty is sleaze personified as J.C. Connors, the good ol’ boy sheriff who betrays his public office and rationalizes the payoff money he and his deputies rake in by blaming the low pay of civil servants. Beatty is so slimy and so hypocritical with his public “law and order” posturing that you may never again feel sorry for his character in Deliverance after you’ve seen him in this film.
Bo Hopkins plays Roy Boone, a philandering fellow moonshine runner of Gator’s who has no idea that Burt is working for the feds. Hopkins is pitch-perfect as the stoic wheel man who knows the risks of his profession. R.G. Armstrong is convincingly brutal as Big Bear, the gangster behind the bad guys in White Lightning.
Jennifer Billingsley costars as “Lou”, who starts out as Roy Boone’s woman but is drawn to the hunkier Gator. Diane Ladd plays Maggie Watson, the wife of McClusky’s fellow snitch Dude Watson (Matt Clark). Ladd’s real-life daughter Laura Dern appears as one of Maggie’s children in a few scenes.
Burt Reynolds IS the movie, however. It’s fascinating to see how menacing yet charismatic he could be back when he was really trying. He’s convincing every step of the way as the danger grows and he comes to feel conflicted about bringing down the lesser wheels in Sheriff Connors’ and Big Bear’s corrupt machine.
White Lightning is a very well-made film, with Reynolds as impressive as Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson ever were, while maintaining the unique charm that made him a star. The southern mis en scene is perfectly exploited from the beautiful outdoor locations to the oppressive humidity and sweat-drenched faces of the actors as they play their parts.
SPOILERS: Though this film is gritty enough that you genuinely feel a downbeat ending may be a possibility, rest assured that it all works out. Ultimately, Gator burns all the evidence since he can’t bring himself to be a rat for the revenuers but events play out so that he still manages to find out why his brother was killed and to get some very appropriate revenge on Sheriff Connors.
White Lightning is no cinematic classic, but it’s a solid, entertaining Tough Guy flick with lots of car chases, fistfights, gunplay and other violence. The one and only Buddy Joe Hooker makes an early appearance in the Burt Reynolds filmography, too. This movie spawned a lesser sequel called Gator.
FOR MY REVIEW OF SIX-STRING SAMURAI, A POST-APOCALYPSE SAMURAI FILM/ SPAGHETTI WESTERN, CLICK HERE.
FOR MY LEO FONG MOVIE MARATHON CLICK HERE
FOR MY ROBERT GINTY MOVIE MARATHON CLICK HERE
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