From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
This year marked the 40th anniversary of Smokey & The Bandit, the memorable Hixploitation film that has fun car chases, humorous dialogue and a fantastic performance from Jackie Gleason. It kickstarted the wave of car chase movies that took place in the Southern US as well as inspired the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard (which even had its own animated series).
Before all of that happened, one of the first films in the genre was the 1973 cult classic White Lightning. Just like every younger audience member, I knew of this film eight years ago when I first watched Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. He used its main theme in the movie and put it on the soundtrack album. That was how I first discovered films like Slaughter and this one. I think the last time I saw White Lightning was several years ago and I remembered that it was okay. To my surprise, I watched it again today and I totally forgot how amazing it is because the film not only has an intense plot, it's also a time machine back to the rural areas of early 70's America.
Burt Reynolds (without his famous mustache) plays Gator McKlusky, a criminal who's in jail for making and transporting illegal 'shine. One day, his cousin tells him that his brother, Donny has been killed. While the audience knows that the corrupt Sheriff JC Connors (Ned Beatty) killed him (we see it during opening credits) Gator's only clue is his Mom and Dad's claim that JC might be involved. Gator then tries to escape from jail in order to get revenge, but he fails. Later on, he makes it known to the prison officials that JC takes money from people who run moonshine, so he'll find evidence to nail him. Luckily, the police know that JC is a corrupt guy as well. According to one of the officials...
"We have a file on the Bogan County sheriff. He's a damn tough cookie. He's got several unsolved homicides as well as other circumstances. But our jurisdiction is only the manufacture of untaxed illegal whiskey."
So Gator decides to co-operate with the federal agents to expose JC. He has to meet some new contacts who run moonshine and collect his evidence. There will be a fight. There will be a car chase. There will be a betrayal. There will be revenge.
Gator is the kind of realistic character that can easily win the hearts of the audience. He's an anti-hero, but not a "Man With No Name" or "Snake Plissken" type. He shows the first sign of his anti-establishment personality immediately after he drives away from prison. He throws away his stuffy suit and tie that the officials give him for the job since he prefers to look "local". Shortly after that, he exceeds the speed limit and the cops start chasing him. On the other hand, he's not a character that wants to do the job alone. He talks to a lot of people in town and tries to be friendly but if any problem stands in his way he will use harsher tactics. A good example of this is when he tries to get information from Dude Watson, the contact man in Bogan County. Dude refuses to tell Gator anything since JC is a powerful politician. He's scared of JC as much as the local federal agents since he runs illegal moonshine and has to pay his share.
Meanwhile, JC always finds an excuse for his bad behavior. Here's the reason why he takes money from local moonshine runners...
"Now, what's it the business of any income tax federal revenuer, anyway?... I take that money and I spread it around among 25 men in my department who do not make enough off the taxpayer to buy their wives a washer and a dryer machine, all of them things that every American's family is supposed to have."
Later on, we see JC and his gang interrogate local folks to find out about the federal agents that are sent to nail him. His method is, you guessed it, torture. And if that's not enough, this is another highlight from his discussion with his co-worker...
"[The federal government is] gonna integrate our schools. They are gonna get all our coloreds to vote. They are gonna send all those long-haired, smart-aleck hippies down here."
He is the stereotypical 70's redneck movie villain that everyone is familiar with. I have to emphasize the term 70's here since he talks about hippies. I was surprised that this film dealt with serious topics like the social movement of late 60's-early 70's. There's a scene where a hippy drives a pro-marijuana truck around town and the dude says...
"Legalize that shit, it's gonna ruin moonshine liquor forever. Them long-haired freaks caught smoking..."
Later, we see Gator try to talk to some hippies in the bar while they are talking about stuff like this...
"You know what we need? We need a woman president. You know why? If they elected woman president, there wouldn't be any more war." "Pretty soon, there will be more guns than people. [...] I wouldn't even know what to do with a gun if I had one."
This contradicts the belief of other local citizens, including some of our heroes, but then it's revealed why Gator loves his brother so much. Before the climactic car chase at the end, Gator learns that JC killed his brother because he's a hippy who demonstrated in town. He tells us that he loves his brother because while he never did anything good in his life (besides stealing cars and running shine), Donny was the first one in his family who attended school and made his family proud. After Donny's death, Gator realizes that goodness has no boundaries, no matter what Donny's beliefs or political opinions were. He makes Gator want to be a better person.
Besides the great car chases throughout the movie, another thing that I really like about White Lightning is the "local" attitude. We see people help each other out when needed. They even go to church as well. It's a charming detail because while most movies focus more on the development of a character or the plot to keep you on the edge of your seat, this is a rare example of setting up an atmosphere that not only makes us believe that these could be real people but also acts as a kind of promotion for people to visit Arkansas since it shows the attractive small-town environment.
Overall, this is a tense and totally entertaining movie. Don't expect it to be a laugh riot like Smokey & The Bandit since it is more of an awesome Action/Drama that reflects the good old boy charisma that everyone knew back in the day. Highly recommended.