Before the Duke Boys were jumping bridges in Hazard County there was Gator McKlusky, a true hero of the South in White Lightning. Made in 1973 this Good Ole Boy movie is not what one would expect from just looking at the poster. It is a surprisingly dark and thoughtful movie with Burt Reynolds showing some serious acting chops.
And speaking of dark, the movie opens with Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty) and his deputy towing another boat out into the swamp with two young men gagged and tied to it. Connors takes out a shotgun and blows a hole in the boat holding the two youths and then coldly watches it sink. We later find out that one of the young men was Donny McKlusky, a college boy who made the mistake of coming to Bogan County to protest the Vietnam War.
The movie then cuts to our lead character Bobby “Gator” McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) who is currently serving time in an Arkansas prison for moonshine running. When he learns of his brother’s death at the suspected hands of the corrupt sheriff of Bogan County, Gator decides he must find out what truly happened to his brother. Gator attempts to escape prison but is quickly recaptured, so he is forced to go with plan “B” which is to offer his services to the Federal government in nailing Sheriff J.C. Connors for tax evasion by tying him to the moonshine business.
What follows is an excellent portrayal of a southern town controlled by corrupt officials and kept down by poverty. Fans of Burt Reynold’s movies will enjoy the car stunts and the alley brawls, but this is Early Burt who strangely enough was a much better actor than Super Star Burt as it is only a year after his stellar performance in Deliverance. So we were more likely to see him try to act during this time period versus his smile smugly at the camera and give that trademark laugh period that came later.
Stuntman Hal Needham at work.
Now that infectious laugh of his does make an appearance in this film but seems more in keeping with the character here. Ned Beatty is simply marvelous as the heavy in this film as is Bo Hopkins who plays fellow moonshiner Roy Boone and R.G. Armstrong as Big Bear the chief manufacturer and enforcer in the business.
Because you aren’t going to have a southern action/moonshine movie without a bit of love interest, in this case, it’s Gator having an affair with Roy Boone’s girlfriend Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) who is quite open about her desire to sleep with Gator. One of the fascinating things about her is that Billingsley is not your standard Hollywood looker, so Lou comes across much more real and down to Earth as opposed to Burt’s later bevy of beautiful co-stars. And I’m not saying Billingsley is unattractive, because she certainly is, it’s just nice to see they didn’t feel the need to glam her up for the part. I give the movie big props for that.
The film is fraught with tension as Gator is torn between being a hated informant for the government and bringing down the man who killed his brother. He must stay one step ahead of Connors as the brutal sheriff tortures, threatens rape and disposes of any threats to his power. This is an excellent movie and easily one of Burt’s best performances. One of Ned Beatty’s best. Hell, the entire cast in this movie is pretty great. This is a must see.
Trivia: This movie was directed by the versatile and immensely talented Joseph Sargent but this was originally meant to be Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film. Apparently, he got a bit gun shy about doing his first movie away from the Universal lot.
Burt Reynolds made several of these Good Ole Boy southern action films but White Lightning is certainly one of the best of the genre. Director Joseph Sargent and writer William W. Norton beautifully orchestrate a story full of the action and drama.