White Lightning is one of the sources for the avalanche of Southern-Fried action films that crashed on the film scene in the 70s, not drying up until they were thoroughly domesticated by the likes of star Burt Reynolds’ (Heat) own later films such as Smokey and the Bandit and TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard. Back in 1973 when White Lightning came out, it was still very much a new and rough sub-genre, with ancestors like Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road and recent hits like Walking Tall. Rural drive-ins packed them in with rough-and-tumble action films set in the country, and White Lightning was one of the early successes. The film starts with Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty, The Unholy) and his deputy towing a boat with two bound and gagged young men out into the swamps. When they get to where they want to go, Connors calmly shoots a hole in the boat and unties it, calmly rowing away while the men drown.
Gator McKlusky is working in the motor shop of a prison when his sister arrives to tell him bad news-his kid brother has drowned a few counties over. Gator tries to bust out but is easily caught, so he reluctantly takes the Warden’s deal-cooperate with the Feds, who want Connors on the only charge that will stick-taking moonshine money. The Feds know that Connors is corrupt as hell and runs his county with an iron fist (in the memorable words of one character, you might as well try to go to China to take down Mao). Gator is reluctant to become a federal stooge (he and his father were moonshiners) but he wants revenge, so he agrees. The Feds set him up with a local mechanic, moonshine runner and demolition derby driver, Dude Watson (Matt Clark, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Dude is very reluctant to help Gator, but he’s already violated probation and the Feds have him. With the help of a souped up muscle car provided by the Feds, Gator works his way into the local Moonshine scene, riding with “Rebel” Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins, The Getaway) and eventually meeting up with Big Bear (R. G. Armstrong, The Car), the mean old bastard who runs the still. Unfortunately for Gator, Connors is every bit as crafty and mean as his reputation, and soon Gator is exposed-can he outrun and outsmart Connors long enough to get the revenge he seeks?
While the basic formula-good old boys driving souped up cars while outwitting corrupt local authorities and getting into brawls while wooing the local bad girls-is familiar from any number of later films, White Lightning gives us the formula in its roughest form. While the film has a few laughs, it’s not a comedy, and Connors is not a one-note joke but has real menace to him, and Beatty steals the show. Reynolds isn’t the laughing ham you know from the Cannonball Run films, but leaner, meaner, and tougher, although he still has the distinctive laugh at times and there are hints of where his persona would go. Bo Hopkins is great in another of his clueless fall guy roles, and as a foil to Reynolds craftier Gator. The locations are wonderful-you get a real sense of place in the film, with its back country roads, swamps, open fields and dilapidated buildings contrasted with the prim center of town, with nearly everyone dripping sweat. I can’t speak for the film’s authenticity, it feels like it delivers verisimilitude along with some wonderfully over the top dialog. The film is grittier than it’s successors, starting with the opening sequence and running through Gator’s encounters with Connors goons.
The only downside to this is that staple of 70s action films, the sexual assault or rape as a sign of just how bad the villain is-the scene where Connors calmly crushes Dude Watson’s father’s hand in a door frame was far more original and effective. The performances of the supporting cast are mostly good, and even Jennifer Billingsley’s trashy sexpot dingbat turned out to have another side that I didn’t expect. The soundtrack is a standard early 70s action (i.e. Blaxpo-style “waka-chika” stuff) with some country twang pitched in, and I quite liked it. Finally, the action sequences are quite good-multiple well done car chases and some straightforward fisticuffs. White Lightning is a solid action/revenge film with a strong sense of place, an excellent performance by Ned Beatty and solid work from the rest of the cast, and definitely worth a look for 70s action film fans.