Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.
WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he makes a deal with the Feds to get the goods on the sheriff. Not that Gator’s eager to assist those damn revenuers… his main goal is to avenge Donnie’s death.
Gator’s given a souped-up 1971 Ford Galaxie Custom 500, complete with a 429 Police Interceptor/Cobra Jet engine, and a link to mechanic/moonrunner Dude Watson, who’s violated his Fed Pro (that’s Federal Probation to you non-criminal types). Dude’s reluctant to trust Gator, considering him a snitch, but reluctantly agrees to go along, and introduces Gator to runner Rebel Roy Boone, who’s got a hot babe named Lou eager for Gator to “try my shaky puddin'” (he does!).
Gator acts as a “blocker” for Boone, running interference with the law while the good ol’ boy makes his moonshine run. When Boone’s car is temporarily disabled by Dude, Gator is allowed to accompany him to Big Bear’s still, a large enterprise out in the hill country. The Sheriff gets word the Feds have sent a spy to nose around, Dude gets killed, Gator and Lou are captured by Big Bear, who’s in cahoots with Connors, and things begin to look bleak….
That Reynolds charm is on fine display here, with his sly smile and that unmistakable laugh. Burt’s physical acting takes precedent over his dramatic skills, but hey, it’s an action flick! Besides, his charisma is more than enough to carry the film, even without his trademark 70’s ‘stache, that and all the car chase scenes, staged by stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Hal Needham, who’d later direct Burt in five films, including the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series.
That Ford Galaxie’s not Burt’s only co-star here. Ned Beatty plays the coke-bottle-glasses wearing, pot-bellied villain of the piece, and he’s meaner and ornerier than Sheriff Buford T. Justice could ever hope to be. Jennifer Billingsley (Lou) is a sweet Southern potato, best remembered for her film debut in 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE. Matt Clark is funny and poignant as Dude, and Bo Hopkins is good as the jerk Rebel Roy. Perennial Western baddie R.G. Armstrong makes a nasty Big Bear, while Diane Ladd (billed with one D, for reasons unknown) elicits sympathy as Dude’s wife (her daughter Laura Dern appears unbilled as one of their kids). Director Joseph Sargent was a four-time Emmy winner who had his good days on the big screen (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) and not-so-good (JAWS THE REVENGE); this is one of his better efforts.
Every character in this film hates the system! Sheriff Connors hates the Commies infiltrating Washington, the moonshiners hate the IRS, and those damn long-haired, pot smoking hippies are always protesting. This is because screenwriter William W. Norton was a rebel in his own right; a card-carrying member of the Communist Party since the paranoid 50’s, Norton’s life is as interesting as the story. After a career in Hollywood, penning THE SCALPHUNTERS, I DISMEMBER MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, and this film’s sequel GATOR, he moved to Ireland in the 1980’s and became a gunrunner for the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army), until he and his wife Eleanor were busted in France, and sentenced to prison. After doing his time, and learning a warrant was issued in America, he sought asylum in Nicaragua, where he killed a man who broke into his house. Then he moved to Cuba, but found living under a Communist regime was a lot different from just carrying a card, so he fled to Mexico, eventually being smuggled back into the USA by friends, where he lived out his life. He summed up how he felt about his film career to a nurse who asked him if she’d know any of his movies; Norton replied, “I don’t think your IQ is low enough”. His son William “B.W.L” Norton is still active in movies and television.
Norton’s opinion aside, I thoroughly enjoyed WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s a fast-paced film filled with plenty of action, solid character actors, humor, and Burt Reynolds lighting up the screen as only Burt could. His movie output from ’73 til about the mid-80’s were all for the most part entertaining, and worth rediscovering if you only know him as the old guy from BOOGIE NIGHTS. I recommend you start right here with WHITE LIGHTNING.