Burt Reynolds was God damn huge in the 1970s. He skipped like a flat stone through movies, hitting comedy, action, dramas, worked as a romantic lead— studios even let the guy direct his own movies. That kind of sway led to Reynolds to rely less on his ability to act and more on his natural charm by the 1980s. He also proved less-than-skilled at choosing projects. His filmography is wildly uneven, and so, Reynolds became a punch line; a major star not discussed in revered tones, but a man who starred in flotsam that filled programming blocks on basic cable throughout the early 90s.
Too bad, because the king of mustaches had a string of populist movies in the 1970s that consistently delivered. After the highly successful and critically lauded Deliverance, Reynolds played Gator McKlusky in 1973’s White Lightning, birthing his “Good Ole Boy” persona and exemplifying what is lovingly referred to as “redneckploitation”.
White Lightning features Gator as a convicted moonshiner who sets out to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of a corrupt sheriff. The plot ain’t serpentine, but little things go a long way. Set in the fictional Bogan County, Arkansas, White Lightning has a verisimilitude that is a trademark of 1970s cinema, with fantastic location photography, use of locals, and a collection of character actors that feel natural to the environment. White Lightning is an exploitation movie— no one would say it transcends the genre, but the craft and attention to detail sets it apart from most of America International Picture’s redneck/car chase counterparts.
Joseph Sargent directed White Lightning after a decade of television work (Kojak, Star Trek, etc). His masterpiece is 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and what is oft-praised in Pelham— the eye for scenery, the abundance of character actors, the “lived-in” atmosphere, is on full display in White Lightning. The film feels hot. Everyone sweats buckets from living in ninety-percent humidity. Their shirts are stained, their clothes are cheap, and they’re half out-of-breath. The locations feel real; Auto repair shops are filled with clutter, livestock gets in the way of the camera, the farms all look dilapidated. The poverty-stricken South is in no way prettied up for the camera. Despite a being a simple actioneer, Sargent really directs the film; rare is there not background action and diegetic sound acting as either counter-point or emphasis to the foreground. The mise-en-scéne is filled with little details, like a bootlegger’s filthy “Sears-Roebuck pinball machine” or a home-salon hairdryer. Bogan County feels like a real place, and it’s neck deep in white trash.
The cast is a cadre of great character actors. Ned Beatty plays the main protagonist, Sherriff J.C. Connors; equal parts bully, criminal, bureaucrat and politicking man-of-the-people. He walks with his hands at his side for extra support to carry his girth. He has an intense stare that suggests a constant sizing up his constituents. Sam Peckinpah alum Bo Hopkins is “Rebel” Roy Boone, bootlegger and all-around moron. McKlusky’s entree into Bogan County crime is Dude Watson, played by Matt Clark, whose perpetual hound-dog expression hints at moral complexity. R.G. Armstrong is Big Bear, the moonshine impresario of Bogan County, a terrifying hillbilly dressed in rags with an army of inbred soldiers and an unexplained group of women (wives? daughters? both?) that wander around his large but should-be-condemned homestead. Rounding out the cast is Jennifer Billingsley as a former beauty queen that’s seen better days, and Diane Ladd (billed as Diane Lad) as Matt Clark’s long-suffering wife.
The overlapping dialogue feels authentic and improvised, a testament to the cast’s ability, William W. Norton’s writing, and Sargent’s direction. The movie allows the characters to be complex: Sheriff Connors is cruel, but one feels the pressure his criminality has created. Roy and Dude act as if running corn liquor is their job and the legality of it is just one of the hassles of life, and Gator—while bent on revenge—is thrilled to be free after years in prison; he enjoys being able to drive again and sample Bogan County’s questionable pleasures. White Lightning could be fun (at least serviceable) if it were just plot and action set-pieces, but that Sargent allows the characters to “hang out” and experience day-to-day life brings a little depth to what should be a drive-in thrillfest.
This shit-kicker flick, sold around car chases and fistfights has the gall to include political subtext and commentary. The redneck characters constantly reference the evils of Communism and name-drop Chairman Mao. Hippies are treated with distain, judged for their lack of work ethic and penchant for marijuana. The irony to this conservative rhetoric is plain: These “patriots” who sneer at the laziness of the counter-culture do not have real jobs. They call hippies dissenters, but actively commit federal-level crimes and ignore income tax. The Sheriff rails against communism while he runs his town like a third-world despot. The problem with marijuana, in the eyes of the moonshiner, is that it cuts into sales of unlicensed liquor. Every slander is a projection; every opinion reveals ignorance and hypocrisy. There are a few moments that briefly deal with race, a reoccurring theme in the Burt Reynolds canon: At one point, McKlusky visits a black-owned bar, and the owner reveals that he knew McKlusky’s father as a friend and compatriot. To Reynolds’s credit, his movies-especially his redneck movies- often have a scene where he is definitively shown not to be prejudice. It’s a small thing, and to the best of my knowledge he never made a film where race relations are central to the plot, but it is constant enough throughout his work that it deserves mention, especially since the prime audience was the Nascar set.
The films ambiance, acting and progressive commentary are not the reason White Lightning exists. It is an action thriller first, and on that level, White Lightning delivers. It is a taut 101 minutes, filled with car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs, beatings, torture and suspense. The tangents and character moments do not sacrifice the talents of legendary stuntman Hal Needham. The car stunts are great; Needham jumps the 1971 Ford Galaxie Custom 500 on to a moving barge, flies a police car inches over a man’s head, and that’s just two minutes out of a hundred.
White Lightning — populist entertainment with a soul. Burt Reynolds would direct the sequel, Gator, which was neither popular nor did it have a soul. It does have speedboats. Other than that, it’s lacking.