Reeling Backward: White Lightning (1973)

Although it's a bit trashy, "White Lightning" made Burt Reynolds a star and established his oeuvre of fast cars, bad cops, frisky women and smoldering machismo.

"White Lightning" is the film that made Burt Reynolds a breakout star -- the biggest in the land, for a not-inconsiderable amount of time -- and also firmly established his niche of fast cars, bad cops, frisky women and smoldering machismo.

It's not a particularly great movie, landing more toward the trash end of the action/comedy spectrum with lots of poor car chases and ill-staged fistfights. Reynolds boasted it was made so cheaply that they didn't care if it played in any theaters north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The movie was also a big break for Ned Beatty, who had played with Reynolds in the previous year's "Deliverance." Beatty helped set the stereotype of the fat, corrupt, red-faced Southern lawman that would become ubiquitous in subsequent popular film such as Reynolds' own "Smokey and the Bandit" series.

Beatty was only in his mid-30s when these two films came out, one of those actors who seemed to be in perpetual middle age.

Diane Ladd also has a small part as a wife who gets harassed and threatened with sexual assault for protecting her man. (Alas, she gets her name misspelled as "Lad" in the credits.

Believe it or not, "White Lightning" was nearly the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. He had already scouted locations and cast much of the film when he decided he wanted to do something more personal, and so the somewhat similar "The Sugarland Express" became his debut instead.

The film did well enough that Reynolds was voted a top 10 box office star at the end of 1973, and would go on to star in a disastrous sequel, "Gator," which was also his directorial debut. It's currently sitting at 0 percent on the Tomatometer.

Screenwriter William W. Norton was known for doing cheapie exploitative flicks, and director Joseph Sargent worked mostly in TV with a few similar-strata features like "Jaws: The Revenge." It's a little unclear how funny they actually intended the movie to be. Reynolds' persona as moonshine hauler "Gator" McKlusky is thoroughly sardonic, though the mood is more tuned to tragedy and revenge themes than side-splitters.

The story is that Gator is serving hard time after his third bust for moonshining -- the first came at age 13 -- when his younger brother is murdered by J.C. Connors (Beatty), the powerful sheriff in nearby Bogan County, Ark. He vows revenge and earns an early release by promising the feds to bring down Connors by implicating him in the ubiquitous whiskey trade.

It's a pretty sweet and unlikely deal. He's given a year off his sentence, a few contacts and a car with a hot engine -- a 1971 Ford Custom 500, according to the indispensable Internet Movie Cars Database -- and very little oversight from the federal officers, who only show up once to check up on him during the course of the film.

I can't imagine that even in 1973 federal authorities would release a prisoner on spec to go hunt up evidence against an elected lawman, rather than testifying to crimes that had already occurred. But hey, otherwise there's no movie.

He's assigned to coerce help from Dude Watson (Matt Clark), a local mechanic and stock car racer who also does a little moonshine running. Through him he's hooked up to Rebel Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), a glad-hander and one of the top haulers. After a successful tryout as a blockade runner, getting in front of the cops while Roy makes his getaway, Gator is brought fully into the local trade, with Big Bear (R. G. Armstrong) running the big distillery.

Everybody pays Connors protection money to look the other way, and Gator tries fitfully to put together some evidence to prove this. Most of his spare time, though, seems to be spent canoodling on the sly with Lou (Jennifer Billingsley), Roy's girlfriend.

At one point they skinny dip and get it on right under Roy's nose while he's eating breakfast. It's here we hear the first notes of Reynold's signature high-pitched trilling laugh that would become part of his iconography. Party hyena's caw, part rebel yell, it always seemed genuine no matter how many takes he might have to do.

There's also a theme about college kids invading Bogan County and bringing all their freethinking hippie ideas with them, such as racial equality and ending the war. Though there's hardly any black people in the movie, other than on one of Gator and Roy's whiskey dropoffs to the colored part of town.

I have to say the car stunts aren't particularly expert. Gator is supposed to be a first-class driver, but he slaloms and fishtails all over the road like a drunken teenager. Part of it's that big brown beast of a car he's driving -- actually the same make and model as most of the police cars -- but you'd see better wheel work in any episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV show, which surely seems to have inherited much of its DNA from "White Lightning."

Roy's car, a '71 Mercury Monterey, even has his name painted in script over the door and a Confederate flag just like the General Lee, though as a hood stripe than across the roof.

Beyond the quality of the driving, the chase scenes just aren't very exciting, quickly becoming repetitive as Gator skids around various dirt and gravel roads. The fistfights aren't much better, as Gator gets into it with Roy, Big Bear and a few others. There's also a few shootouts featuring that DayGlo orange fake blood that was common in 1970s movies.

At one point Gator gets shot up and beat up, and wakes up in a remote home for pregnant girls with a huge bandage covering his eye and most of his face. We think he's suffered some horrible wound that will impair his driving. But then he pulls off the bandage and there's just a mild scratch down his cheek.

Color me disappointed in "White Lightning." The movie doesn't give Burt Reynolds much to do other than glower, flirt and drive. This is one of those films that's more memorable for using actors and ideas that others would emulate in more interesting ways.