Last time I did Riding the Mustache articles, I wrote exclusively about silly Burt Reynolds car films because it sounded like fun and the world was a very different place where fun still existed.
Now I’m writing about WHITE LIGHTNING, which begins with Ned Beatty canoeing through a swamp dragging a weighed-down boat carrying two bound hippies. Beatty shoots the boat so casually he doesn’t even stick around to watch the boys drown. The kids didn’t do anything wrong. We find out later they were just liberal kids, protesting in the South.
Reynold claimed WHITE LIGHTENING was “the beginning of a whole series of films made in the South, about the South, and for the South,” but it plays like a film that hates the South. The mud, the heat, the uneducated and racist people living in barely held together shacks… this isn’t portrayed with pride or charm but disgust. It’s a scary film, more DELIVERANCE than SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, but lacking DELIVERANCE’s thematic questions and purpose.
One of those drowned boys was brother to Reynolds’ Gator McKlusky, currently serving a prison sentence for running moonshine. He has one year left on his sentence, but upon learning of his brother’s death he simply breaks the hell out. When that doesn’t work, he instead agrees to go undercover and help nail Beatty’s powerful Bogan County sheriff Connors.
There is a remarkable and important distinction made here. Gator can snitch, just this once, in the name of revenge. He absolutely cannot and would not snitch to save his own skin or whatever else. Running moonshine appears to be one of about three jobs available to people, and threatening those livelihoods would be the worst kind of sin. Even his parents shame him for doing it.
To get his revenge, Reynolds has to run moonshine with associates close to Connors. To that end, the law gives him a badass car. The first thing he does with it is get in a car chase with some cops, which he ends by ramping onto a barge (take that 2 FAST, 2 FURIOUS). He first hooks up with Matt Clark’s dumb but well-meaning Dude Watson, who brings him into the orbit of Bo Hopkins’ Rebel Roy Boone, which brings him into the orbit of R.G. Armstrong’s terrifying Big Bear, which brings him to Beatty. The storytelling stops and starts for driving scenes and weird hangout moments, such as when Burt has a fling with Boone’s girlfriend. It’s a film you observe more than get caught up in.
It’s a fallacy of my own invention that Burt Reynolds delivers better performances without a mustache. Nevertheless, he has no mustache here and we do get to see him work rather than just play his own iconography, which isn’t quite set yet anyway. He’s understated and mumbles his lines. He’s too charismatic to melt completely into the setting but he comes close, if only by sweating profusely through each scene. Even with his bizarre trademark carefree laugh getting a lot of play, especially in driving scenes, the film is just too mired in grime for that charm to break through its oppressive setting. WHITE LIGHTNING offers a clear movie star delivering a character performance, and that alone makes it worth watching.
In other words, Reynolds’ star power doesn’t elevate him above this world. He’s just as awful and racist as the rest of them. When confronted with an ad to legalize marijuana, he mumbles “They legalize that shit, it’s gonna ruin moonshine liquor forever, them long haired hippie freaks, pot smoking…” Later when an ass-kicking forces him to secretly coalesce in a home for unwed pregnant girls, he sees an infant and asks its name: Jimmy Lee. “Well, Lee’s a lot better than Grant,” he responds. He learns his brother died simply for protesting and reacts more with irritation than rage: “Protesting? What the hell’s he got to protest about in Bogan County?” You get the idea if his brother didn’t die, Gator might kill him.
WHITE LIGHTNING was supposedly developed by Steven Spielberg for a time before he jumped onto SUGARLAND EXPRESS instead. It’s hard to imagine. Director Joseph Sargent followed this up with THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, which is amazing, but again swam in Spielberg’s wake by directing JAWS: THE REVENGE, which is not. Nevertheless, Sargent knocks WHITE LIGHTNING out of the part. Unless he truly wanted to glorify the South, in which case he failed miserably.
You can catch the film on Amazon Prime right now, along with its Burt Reynolds-directed sequel GATOR, which I intend to cover tomorrow. As you can probably imagine, it is a much different movie. I enjoy them both but more appreciate just how sincerely awful WHITE LIGHTNING’s world is and relish any time we get to see Burt Reynolds truly act rather than ham it up.