What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
While "White Lightning" is first and foremost, an action revenge story, that doesn't keep it from addressing a few social issues. The battle between the federal government and the culture of moonshiners is one that affects every character in the film. While the government isn't portrayed as an outright villain, it is showed as possibly, a necessary evil, depending on your own priorities. Gator's father was a moonshiner, as was he. Gator has three moonshine offenses, as does Roy, the other prominent "runner" in the film, suggesting that this is the life they know, law or not. When Gator leaves prison to see his parents, they're not shocked at what he's done, and ask him not to get into it again, because he'll get in trouble with the law, not because it's wrong. Prison is just a part of the life they know, and they don't think any less of him for being incarcerated for it. Gator's father, however, does think less of him for working with the feds, naming names of moonshiners. He seems to view it as a betrayal of the family.
An interesting part of the film is that Gator, doesn't engage in much hand wringing over working with the federal government. For him, it appears the only second option available, escape being first. Everyone assumes that he'll be turning everyone in, but as he explains a few times, he's only after one guy. Using the law against the law, gives him the ability to avenge his brother when nothing else will. Ultimately he doesn't betray his culture, but uses the law as a tool. The Sheriff, is as much a part of the moonshine culture as Gator is, and while we could see him as "law" He is as opposed to the Federal government as much as Gator's father or any moonshiner. viewing it as very much the enemy. Connors views the federal government as communists, trying to force integration and rob the people of his county.
Gator's decision is rejected by his father and others because they don't like the principle of the thing. It's a very "us and them" mentality. You just don't work against your own people. Gator's decision however, is also decided based on "the principle of the thing." He reveals late in the movie that he didn't really know his brother, but to him the idea that some sheriff can just kill his brother is not at all tolerable. It's an idea that he can't stand so much that he's willing to risk his life to correct it. He's not making a stand against any great injustice. A man killed his brother. It's a personal attack that he feels must answered by any means necessary. His distant view is evidenced by the lack of savagery on Gator's part. He's willing to fight or even kill someone if he has to to preserve his own life, but even after killing Sheriff Connors, he takes no pleasure in it, other than doing a job he needs to see done. He's able to stand by calmly as the Sheriff launches himself into the water. It doesn't need to be up close and personal. it just needs to be done. Rather than shoot Big Bear with the shotgun, he hits him with it, and only kills an officer who has his gun pointed at him at close range. He wonders what it means that his brother who was "good" and interested in social change was killed, while he, who was never good at all, gets by OK. He doesn't understand what his brother was doing, but clearly sees it as more worthwhile than his own activities. He answers his own pondering at the end when he says "The good, they die young." if you note that Sheriff Connors was not young.
While not overly concerned with a greater injustice, the character does have his own code of conduct. He thinks nothing of sleeping with Lou, although she's Roy's girl. When confronted on it, he asks if Roy plans to marry her, implying that if he was, he'd back off. Clearly he isn't, so this doesn't trouble his conscience. Gator isn't a character given to much introspection, but he has lines he won't cross. He's happy enough being a "good ol' boy." although his definition may differ from others. While he's pretty smart, he isn't educated. or bothered by the fact he isn't. He knows cars and moonshine, and given a choice would be content to sit around drinking and telling jokes.
Contrary to the movie's assertion, he isn't "the baddest." He doesn't bother with tough guy posturing, unless pressed to defend himself, yet he's secure enough to take a gun away from someone and then give it back if they ask.
The federal government looms over all of them, and the times are changing, as Harvey tells Sheriff Connors "It can't be the way it was!" Although most people in Gator's immediate circle wish the federal government would leave them alone, they are slowly accepting that some changes are inevitable. This is a community where Gator can establish instant credibility, by mentioning a driver he knew named "Rebel Roy," a character who had a Confederate flag painted on his hood. He views protesting as something that should happen "up north, in New York. places like that." While Gator's limited world view and his prison term would seem to insulate him from the world changing around him, it doesn't, and he's affected him through his brother's death. His brother Donnie was the "the only one in the family who ever accomplished anything" He doesn't understand Donnie at all, but seems happy with what he's done, and his own revenge taking is it's own sort of protest, rejecting the status quo which allowed his brother's death.
Director Joseph Sargent does a passable job, telling the story in straightforward style. The scenery and settings ring true and build the secluded environment believably. The car chases and action sequences are exciting enough, but the focus is always squarely on Burt Reynolds who gives a great performance here. The character work is interesting, particularly Gator's relationship with Cap Simms, which shows that Gator has no deep grudge against "the system" thriving in prison as easily as he does outside. Sargent doesn't attempt anything flashy or elaborate to make his mark on the film, and it's not surprising to me that he's primarily a director of TV movies, as this could easily fit within the TV movie style. It's no insult in my opinion when I don't notice a director, it can just mean that he focused on telling the story, which is true here I think.
Reynold's gives a terrific lead performance, alternately subtle and over the top. His character is uneducated, but you get the sense that in his own way, he's always thinking. It's easy to see why he was such a big name in the movies, and a different world from "Cannonball Run" He's a fine actor and shows it here. Ned Beatty is also great here, playing the backwater menacing Sheriff perfectly. In a perfect world roles like this would ease "Deliverance" associations that follow Beatty around. A fine job, and he presents a believably real danger, playing a man who's unbelievably mean spirited, although he believes in service of his community.
"White Lightning" ends up being a story about what's personally acceptable, and what changing times do to us as people. It's smart enough to present change as good and bad. Although we make forward progress, we lose some things too, but if we don't adapt, we die. Sheriff Connors used moonshine to help his officers buy the things they need for their families. But, Connors also thought nothing of killing a college kid who organized a protest and insisted on his rights. The film doesn't present the federal government as the solution, pointing out that they couldn't do a thing against the sheriff, if Gator wasn't willing to help. The federal government's laws are simply a condition, which here Gator uses for his own ends. In this case a change is necessary. In Gator's personal case, if he observed the traditional "don't work with the feds" rule, he would not have been able to reach the sheriff at all. His adaptability is what makes him a threat and gives him the right thing to say when he has a knife up to his neck. Some things are bigger than us, but like it or not, we have to deal with them somehow.
The tagline for "White Lightning" was "Meet the Bayou's baddest good ol' boy." This of course refers to Burt Reynold's who plays good 'ol boy in some respects, but adds a bit to the stereotypes. Filmed in 1973, it's the product of a different time, a fact that even then, was a big part of the film.
One rowboat pulls another through the swamp. The front boat is occupied by Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty) and the rowboat he's pulling contains two college age boys who are bound and gagged. The sheriff stops, picks up his shotgun and shoots their boat and watches as it sinks, drowning the two boys.
We meet Gator McKluskey (Burt Reynolds) working on a car in a garage, laughing and cracking jokes. His good time is interrupted by the arrival of Cap Simms, who after a little friendly banter, tells Gator that he has a visitor, his cousin Louella, who "has kinda got bad news" We realize Gator is serving prison time. Louella informs him that his brother Donnie was killed in Bogan County. Gator has a hard time accepting this, stating that Donnie "didn't run liquor." Louella tells him that his father thinks it was Sheriff J.C. Connors who killed him and another kid he went to college with, on account of "all their protesting. Them damn hippies."
Gator goes to bed and stays there thinking until a guard comes to get him to bring him to work. Gator attacks the guard and takes off into the yard. The guards soon pursue him, but he keeps a good lead, until he finds Cap Simms has come around in front of him. Shotgun in hand he says mildly "Gator, where in the hell do you think you're going?" We next find Gator digging a ditch with the other inmates. Simms talks to him while he digs, reminding him that he's done pretty well with his sentence and only has a year left. He recommends that Gator "serve his time easy." Gator remarks to Simms that the federal law put him in prison, and maybe it can get him out. He tells Simms that he's willing to get evidence on Sheriff Connors moonshine activities if they let him out. Simms remarks as a caution that Connors runs Bogan County. Gator responds, "Yeah, but I'll put his ass away."
Simms sets up a meeting with Mr.Cantrell, a federal officer. Reviewing Gator's record Cantrell notes that Gator was serving time for his second offense. Gator corrects him, saying it was his third offense, but his first was when he was thirteen. Cantrell gives him all the types of evidence they need. The feds have a large file on Sheriff Connors but are only interested in his hidden income and moonshine activities. Gator is released and given a fast car for his upcoming moonshine running activities, as well as a contact Dude Watson (Matt Clark) The feds have Watson on federal probation so he's obligated to help. On his way to find Dude, he can't resist speeding past a cop, initiating a high speed chase. He loses the cops and stops by his parent's place. His parents are ecstatic to see him. His father asks him what he thinks he might do now. His mother tells him not to run moonshine anymore, but soon breaks down, telling him to forget whatever he's thinking. His father starts making plans for Gator to stick around, but then stops and asks "When you leaving?" He gets upset when Gator tells him he's headed for Bogan County, urging him to "let the dead lie." Gator reveals that the law got him out of prison. His father asks, clearly very angry,” Are you taking down the names of liquor people and turning them in?" Gator responds, "I'm gonna get that Sheriff Pa." His father glares turns his back and walks in the house in disapproval. His mother says "It's a bad thing Bobby."
The next day Gator visits a race track and finds Dude working on a race car. Gator makes conversation asking Dude to tune up his car. He asks if he can take a drink from the jug of moonshine sitting on the car Dude's working on. Dude claims he doesn't know a thing about it as some guy just left it there. "Think I'm the fuzz?" Dude says "I don't know what you are." Gator informs him that he's going to help Dude make deliveries and take down some names. Dude asks him, "Why do you want to mess with an old boy just trying to make a living on white liquor?"
Gator: I'm only gonna nail one guy's hide, J.C. Connors.
Dude: J.C. Connors? You might as well swim over to China and get old Mousy Tongue.
Dude speeds off and sneaks back home, watching out his windows for Gator with shotgun in hand. Gator sneaks into his house while he's looking outside, and closes the door on his shotgun, taking it from him. When Dude gets upset, Gator returns the gun. When Dude calls him a federal stool pigeon however, Gator punches him in the gut. Gator explains to dude that the sheriff killed his brother. Gator sees a guy making a moonshine delivery and asks Dude who it is. Dude explains that he doesn't like J.C. Connors, but he can't help because five years in prison is better than getting killed. Gator says "You gotta help me Dude. You gotta help me."
Dude brings him to a pool hall and introduces him to Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins) who needs a "blocker" Roy is cagey about it, but after seeing Gator's car and hearing Gator's made up story about a guy he knew named "Rebel Roy" says he'll think about it. Gator sees Sheriff Connors on the street and tells Dude he wants to talk to him. Dude tells him to go ahead but leave him out of it. Gator insists that he come with him however and speeds up to the walking Sheriff in his car, stopping right next to him, with Dude in the passenger's seat between them. The sheriff talks to due a bit and notices Gator staring at him. He stares back and then comments on how fast the car looks. After some banter back and forth Gator tells him "I'm only scared of two thing; women and the po-lice." Connors responds "You spend all your time trying to hump em both dontcha?" Gator says "Yeah." and Connors laughs advising "You take it easy with this machine in this county now."
Roy pulls up and tells him the route he needs him to take to run blocking for him. Sheriff Connors is having a meeting with Harvey who is warning him that Federal investigators are interested in Bogan County, and are probably sending someone to look around, if they haven't already. Connors rants about the necessity of his operations in keeping the men in his department provided for. Roy picks up a police tail and Gator gets a chance to prove himself, getting in between their car and Roy's and diverting them away from him. He leads them on a chase that leads through a lumberyard, and ends with Gator jumping his car onto a barge. Gator looks at the cop smugly from the barge. Gator attempts to seduce an older woman that works for the Sheriff's Department. She's too suspicious however, assuming that he has tickets he needs fixed.
Roy already refers to Gator as the best blocker he ever had. He has Gator bring him to do a pick up at "Big Bear's (R.G. Armstrong) Gator and Dude talk revealing that Gator had Dude mess up Roy's car to encourage more work for Gator. Big Bear is suspicious of Gator. He asks Gator a lot of questions and pulls Gator aside with a knife up to his neck. He threatens Gator. "Don't you ever do me no wrong." with the blade still against his neck. Gator stays cool and says "How'd you like that knife shoved up your ass?"
Big Bear ponders seriously a moment and says "I wouldn't like that at all. Let's go eat some greens."
Driving back home, Gator, Roy and Roy's girlfriend, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) laugh about the incident when Gator admits he was "scared shitless." Lou chatters in between the two men and they both tune her out, Gator looking at the swamp where his brother drowned. Lou starts giving Roy a hard time about his moonshine running. Lou and Gator end up alone in the car and Lou starts telling Gator about her sexual inclinations, picking up the conversation as Roy makes his drops. She tells Gator. "I don't believe in fooling around. If you want it just say so." Gator asks "What about Roy?" She answers "He's not gonna be standing around watching us is he?"
Sheriff Connors and an officer see Roy making his deliveries, remarking that he's running late. The officer asks about the new guy Roy has with him, and Connors doesn't answer. Gator sees a group of college kids in a diner and asks if any of them go to school in the area, hoping to find someone who knows his brother. Lou calls him a cradle robber. Roy remarks "I don't know what you're talking to them damned pot smokin’, draft dodgin’, long haired sons of bitches for. They don't know nothin’. All they do is cause dissension."
The next morning Gator is out swimming, having stayed over at Roy an Lou's place. Roy is still asleep and Lou watches him out the window as she fixes breakfast. She then brings it out to him and feeds it to him while he's in the water, teasing him. They talk a bit about prison and Lou warns him that he'll end up back in there if he doesn't stop working the moonshine. He tells her he'll buy her a new dress if she gets in the water with him, which she does. Roy wakes up and finds the house empty. He notices that Lou had been cooking and mutters about people wandering off.
Sheriff Connors, gets some information that someone has been sent to investigate him and that the person is working with Dude Watson. He compares the feds to the communists, ranting about integration as well. Harvey asks what he'll do. Connors says "I'm gonna get mean." prompting Harvey to plead with him. "It can't be the way it was!"
Federal officers come see Gator at Dude's place, prompting Dude to tell Gator he wants it all over. Gator tells them off for coming to Dude's place, and tells them he'll call if he has anything. Gator, Lou and Roy take off to make the days runs. Roy keeps asking them both where they were earlier. Gator says he was at Dude's and Lou wasn't with him. He asks Lou separately and she says they went nowhere. He then asks Gator, who says they went for a walk. Roy says "took you long enough." Gator tells Roy that if he has something to say, to just say it. Roy tells him not to look at Lou anymore. Gator then demands. "Just exactly what are your intentions?"
Roy: About what?
Gator: Are you gonna marry her or what?
Gator: That's just what I thought.
The sheriff is at Dude's house, where Dude's wife tells him Dude isn't home. Connors tells her "You can call the NAACP first, or what is the ACLU? the CIO? the FBI or any other damned thing. She responds "Well he isn't here." He then insists that she come with them then. She says she has to get her pocketbook, but Connors sends his men to the back door where they catch her trying to run. She tells them that Gator is with Roy. Roy and Gator are at Big Bear's place where Gator takes advantage of Big Bear complaining about the quality of a batch to look around his office and take some papers.
Roy and Gator make a delivery to a bar, where the bartender remarks that he once knew a Jim McKluskey that looked a lot like Gator, and made the best moonshine around. Gator tells him that Jim is his dad. Roy asks about the book Gator keeps writing him and returns to talking about Lou, accusing him of writing her a love poem. The two of them start fighting attracting a police officer who doesn't mind them fighting but issues a citation for where the car is parked.
Connors then goes to see Dude's parents, asking his Dad, "Skeeter" where he is. Skeeter tries to divert the conversation to a pinball machine he's playing, but Connors squeezes Skeeter's hand in a door hinge to get the information. Dude, Roy and Gator meet at J.W's place, (a regular delivery) where Dude insists that something's wrong just before the Sheriff's men, and Big Bear shoot and kill him. Lou is screaming horrified. Gator attacks the Sheriff's men. Roy sees them attacking Lou, but rather than help, he runs to save himself. They subdue Gator and bring him inside along with Lou to wait for Connors. Gator notices a shotgun close by but Big Bear is watching closely. Gator starts drinking moonshine heavily, causing Big Bear to comment on it. He tells Big Bear he's trying to get so drunk he won't know the difference when Connor's comes for him. Playing up the drunkenness, he then tells Big Bear and the police that Lou has a tattoo on her belly of an American flag and two eagles fighting a snake. Lou of course isn't about to be quiet while they look at her belly. The struggle allows him to grab the shotgun, which he clubs Big Bear with and shoots one of the cops. Gator is shot in the arm, but Lou drives them away as he loses consciousness.
Gator wakes up with pregnant women all around him, as well as one woman with a habit, who takes a hacksaw to his handcuffs. Lou informs him that he's at Sister Linda Faye's Home for Unwed Mothers. Sister Linda Faye informs him that Lou was one of the mothers. Connors and Big Bear are watching Dude's funeral, where Roy is driving Dude's wife around comforting her and telling her that if she needs anything to just ask him. Roy tells the Sheriff he hasn't seen McKluskey.
Gator walks around the property at the home. He asks Lou about her time there but she doesn't want to talk about it. He meets a girl there that knew his brother and was with him the night he was killed.
Girl: He didn't do nothin, I mean nothin' bad. We was just protestin'
Gator: Protesting? What the hell's he got to protest against in Bogan County? You protest up north, in New York and places like that.
Girl: Well that's the beauty of it. Don't you see? It was his idea. We picked the worst county in the whole state to hold a demonstration.
Girl: You know how Donnie was!
Gator: [shakes his head] No I don't.
She details the events, while Lou listens in intrigued a little ways away.
Gator: You know something? I just got out of prison, running cars, stealing cars, running moonshine, I ain't never done nothing good my whole life. Then along come Donnie, the only one that ever went to school, the only one that ever accomplished anything, the only one that ever did anything in the whole family. What the hell's it mean?
One of the girls alerts Gator that the Sheriff is inside asking about him. Lou watches sadly as Gator gets in the car. He drives around the building and runs right into one of the police cars, inciting everyone to pursue him. He leads them through fields and dirt roads. He loses them at one point and circles back to hit the Sheriff's car to be sure they stay after him. The Sheriff takes one of the cruisers himself after the officer driving him goes off the road. Gator again comes back and hits his car to make sure he follows. Gator toys with him, stopping to wave and let him catch up when he could easily lose him. Following Gator, he doesn't realize that Gator is parked just below an incline at the edge of a lake. He jumps right over Gator, who is standing outside his car waiting to watch the car sink as the sheriff drowns.
The town has a huge procession for Sheriff Connors, which Gator and Lou watch. Gator remarks, "Damn. The good, they die young."