By Linc Leifeste | December 1, 2014
Director: Joseph Sargent
Writer: William W. Norton
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Jennifer Billingsley, Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Louise Latham, Diane Ladd, R.G. Armstrong, Conlan Carter, Dabbs Greer
According to Burt Reynolds, who is interviewed as an extra feature on the Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray release of Joseph Sargent’s 1973 White Lightning, Stephen Spielberg was originally slated to direct the car chase-filled film before backing out because, according to Reynolds, everything he’d done prior to that had been shot on a Hollywood lot. And shot on a Hollywood lot White Lightning is definitely not. No, cinematographer Edward Rosson and stunt coordinator Hal Needham chew up a lot of acreage and a lot of cars in this Southern-fried tale of revenge, moonshining and corrupt law enforcement set in the deep South.
The film opens with two men being executed by a swampland-drowning by Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty). Cut to Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds), serving time, being given the news of the murder of his brother (one of the two executed men). He soon attempts an escape but is captured and is given the opportunity for early release if he’ll act as an undercover agent for the Feds to try to take down the corrupt Connors, not for murder but for financial corruption. McKlusky, of course, is more than happy to accept that deal if it might give him a chance to seek retribution on Connors. They give him a souped up car to use and the exquisite joys of the film are evident early on when he’s testing it out and a state trooper attempts to pull him over. One hell of a car chase, the kind you don’t see much anymore, ensues.
The Feds have a moonshine-man reluctantly on the take, Dude Watson (Matt Clark), who begrudgingly works with McKlusky to get him the inside track with moonshine runner Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins) and his gal Lou (Jennifer Billingsley). Boone’s got a run to make and needs a blocker and Burt gets the job done. Soon he’s in good with Roy and Lou. The problem is, Gator is a deep-fried Southern boy himself and he’s got a lot of love and respect for his people. That leaves him walking a fine line, wanting to take down Connors while trying to avoid hurting the moonshiners he’s using to make it possible.
The beauty of the film lies in three things: stellar supporting actors, 70’s filmmaking the likes of which you don’t see much anymore, in which going big meant a lot of stunt work, car chases, fistfights and character development instead of more CGI, and Burt Reynolds doing what Burt Reynolds does best, namely chasing women, racing cars and taking it to “the man,” all the while alternating between that trademark laugh and seething anger. But it’s from that constant variation in tone between dark revenge film and Dixie-fried shenanigans (think The Dukes of Hazzard or Smokey and the Bandit) that the film suffers, ultimately. Reynolds is competent at playing both but not quite adept at playing both masterfully. Beatty, on the other hand, an actor who is equally adept at playing good ol’ boys good or really, really bad, is perfect as Sheriff Connors. Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, and R.G. Armstrong also shine in supporting roles.