Southern Movie 27: “Moonshine County Express”

The 1977 backwoods-justice movie Moonshine County Express could easily be described as an exploitation film. Though it predated the series by five or six years, the storyline shares something in common with The Dukes of Hazzard – car chases down rural roads, a corrupt county boss, an inept sheriff – though there are differences: this movie is grittier and more violent, and there are three pretty sisters rather than two handsome cousins.

Though it is clearly an attempt at a Southern/Appalachian setting, possibly Georgia, the exact place where the story occurs is unclear. There are constant references to the nearest city being called Springfield, which in the film is across the state line, but that’s about it. If that’s Springfield, Tennessee, then they’re in southern Kentucky, not Georgia. However, it likely isn’t Georgia either, since one character is offered a plane ticket to Atlanta, and flying to Atlanta from anywhere in rural Georgia wouldn’t make sense.

Regardless of its exact setting, Moonshine County Express opens with a scene at a backwoods still, where a group of hillbilly-looking men are putting together a batch of moonshine to transport. Though he doesn’t speak, one older man is clearly the patriarch in charge.

Next, that scene is interrupted so we can meet our hero: the dirt-track racecar driver JB Johnson, a cocky local hot-shot who barrels around the curves in dark-red muscle car called The Candy Apple. He is surrounded by a half-dozen adoring fans as he declares himself a certain winner in the upcoming race. He also alludes in vague terms to his skills as a moonshine runner.

Back at the still, as the clear liquid is poured into metal gas cans painted with red Xs, a few birds begin to scatter, and the leader’s attention is drawn. Just as he signals to one of the armed men guarding the spot from an embankment, a barrage of bullets comes out of nowhere, killing first the leader then everyone else. From a nearby cabin, his three pretty, blonde daughters hear the commotion and come running with their own guns. However, they get there too late. Everyone is dead, and the moonshine has been taken.

At their father’s ill-attended funeral, we meet two more of the minor characters: the drunken preacher Hagen and also Sheriff Larkin, whose waxed mustache and uber-clean uniform belie his meticulous grooming. After he spouts a few trite words about the late Pap Hammer, Hagen urges the girls to pack up and move away, a suggestion that they refuse. That short admonition is followed by Sheriff Larkin’s warnings not to go back into the moonshining business and to let him find the killers the legal way. Oldest daughter Dot Hammer assures him that, if he doesn’t, they will handle it “the Hammer way.”

After the funeral, the young women acknowledge that they have almost no money, but still intend to rebuild the still and get back into moonshining. That’s when the youngest daughter Sissy tells them that the town lawyer called, wanting them to come by his office. It’s sounds promising. On the way there, though, they run into JB Johnson, fresh off his racetrack win, and he wants to take a resistant Dot to the Fireman’s Ball on Saturday night to celebrate. Dot is suspicious and coy toward him but agrees. At the lazy lawyer’s cluttered office, they find out that their hopes are coming true: their father has not left them money, but did leave something, which they’ll have to “dig for.”

Meanwhile, JB Johnson stops by a warehouse where men are unloading items from a truck, and there he begins a conversation with the man who orchestrated the attack on Pap Hammer: the swaggering, stop-at-nothing enforcer Sweetwater. Though Sweetwater won’t let him into the warehouse where they are repackaging the Hammer moonshine, he does instruct JB to go see Starkey.

After strutting through town like he owns it, JB goes into the town’s hotel, flirts with front-desk girl Mayella, and then heads upstairs to see the fat, cigar-smoking local boss Jack Starkey. As JB is making his way up, we see a brief scene between Starkey and the old preacher Hagen, who is reporting what was discussed with Hammer daughters after the funeral, then adding, “You said they’d leave after you got rid of their daddy.” At this Starkey erupts, and we know that Hagen is a weak link. When JB comes in, he sees Hagen leaving another way, then he and Jack Starkey have a good laugh as they arrange from JB to make a moonshine run.

After we watch JB’s fancy driving in pea-green muscle car as he evades the rural officers who try to chase him, the Hammer daughters are mulling over their late father’s instructions. Despite a little muddled confusion, they find the hidden portal to an abandoned mine full of aged whiskey from the Prohibition era. Down in the darkness, sipping on the fine liquor, Dot reminds her sisters of the contents of the letter, and we get the back story of this current situation: Pap had been in business with Henry Starkey – Jack Starkey’s father – who had turned him in for reward money, but Pap hid their whiskey before going to prison for five years. Now, his daughters are sitting on his prized secret.

With the introductions made, the story in Moonshine County Express begins to move along more quickly. After his run for Starkey, JB is stopped by Sheriff Larkin, but JB makes a fool out of him as the lawman ironically shouts, “I don’t miss a thing!” Then Starkey and Sweetwater go by the Hammer cabin to make a deal with the women to rebuild the still and have them to run it. Instead, the women hold them at gunpoint, refuse the offer, and finally sic the dog on Sweetwater. As they drive away, Starkey insists that he will get personally involved, and we sense, during the dobro-laced montage that follows, that their two motivations are going to clash: Starkey’s desire to control all liquor sales, and the Hammers’ desire to sell what their father left them.

Here is where the story moves way beyond the good-natured Dukes of Hazzard. While JB and Dot are getting to know each other at the hillbilly dance, Jack Starkey is having a late-night meeting with Sweetwater and Hagen, telling them that sales are down. Sweetwater then presents Starkey with a half-drank bottle of the Hammer whiskey, and Starkey makes the connection: they’re beating him at his own business with what he regards as his own property. JB drives Dot home from the dance, and the girls invite him in, but it’s not a good night for that. From the dark woods, bullets shower the house, and keep showering the house, and keep showering the house, blasting out the windows and destroying most everything inside. However, no one inside is hurt.

At the halfway point now, Moonshine County Express gets busy with action. After the awkward inclusion of a little comic relief, when we see Starkey playing weird fly-fishing sex games with a young woman, the seriousness returns right away. Sheriff Larkin halfheartedly tells the Hammers and JB that he’ll investigate, and JB fusses at Dot for refusing his help. The next day, a newly resolved Dot has her plan: the sisters will load up their guns and head for a late-night poker game where they will force someone to sell them a car to run their whiskey. The best yield from their raid turns out to be stealing Sweetwater’s clothes while he takes a dump, but then JB’s mechanic Harley stops them in the parking lot and offers a Mustang that is “fast as a dollar massage.”

In what seems like a sideline, Dot then brings home their Uncle Bill, their late father’s brother who is a wild and foolish drunk with only one allegiance: to the bottle. Middle daughter Betty objects to Bill being around them, but Dot insists that he must bathe, stay with them, and dry out. Bill’s arrival seems random at the time, however his presence will have relevance later.

Dot then receives a call from Starkey, who lays it all on the table. He knows that they’re selling whiskey, and he knows that it’s left over from their fathers. If the Hammer sisters will just hand it over, he will give them three plane tickets to Atlanta, or Florida, or anywhere. But Betty gets on the phone and tells him to stick the offer up his butt. Now, it’s on! To retaliate, Sweetwater blows up one of the stores where their whiskey was being sold, and Harley is crushed under the Mustang he was fixing for them.

Rather than backing off or getting scared, Dot gets more resolved. She is going to get a truck and carry the whiskey to Springfield herself, undercutting Starkey by dealing with his own vendors. JB, as the experienced driver, objects, but then gives in, offers to help, and teaches Dot how to drive— how to drive like a moonshine runner. However, it won’t be that easy. During their lesson, Sweetwater barrels up behind them and initiates a chase, first on the road then into the woods, where he runs their car off an embankment and down into the water below. It looks like they might be dead— at least Sweetwater thinks they are. Not these two. After he is gone, they emerge from the water with mixture of exhaustion and battle-of-the-sexes tension. Dot Hammer and JB Johnson seem, at this point, to survive everything.

Starkey’s big break comes next in the form of the town’s two wild cards: the preacher Hagen and Uncle Bill. The two drunkards have found the stash of aged whiskey and appear, absolutely destroyed, in Starkey’s warehouse, announcing their find and its whereabouts. Meanwhile, JB is being held up at the sheriff’s office for the backroad car crash that landed he and Dot in the water, so Starkey’s goons descend on the Hammer home, subdue Sissy, and set about loading up the whiskey. Back at the sheriff’s office, Larkin uses a whole array of possible charges to urge JB into helping him. Larkin wants to nail Starkey, once and for all.

As Moonshine County Express comes to a close, there’s nothing left to do but face off. To incite the final showdown, JB calls Starkey first thing in the morning to tell him that he’ll is going to town to swear a warrant against him. Starkey, of course, takes the bait and unleashes the dogs of war. This time, JB isn’t screwing around: he’s back in The Candy Apple and ready to haul ass. This car chase scene is the wildest of all and culminates when Starkey and his biggest lackey have set up a road block. There, they corner Dot and JB when the car stalls. With the big man’s gun drawn and pointed straight at the windshield, it looks like the love birds have nowhere to go— but here comes Larkin and his men to save the day! As Shakespeare put it, all’s well that end well. Starkey is booked, and JB and Dot are invited to ease away quietly. The credits roll as we watch The Candy Apple burn up another two-lane highway.

There is a good reason that people do still watch and talk about Smokey and the Bandit but don’t still watch and talk about Moonshine County Express. Both came out in 1977, both are set in the South, both feature fast cars, handsome leading men, and pretty ladies— but Smokey and the Bandit used its stereotypes and its quirky characters to great comic effect, while Moonshine County Express is just a bunch of quirky stereotypes. Sadly, this movie just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

That’s hard, since Moonshine County Express had a good cast, though most of the actors’ success seemed to come from TV, not film. John Saxon, who played JB, had been on Rockford Files, Six-Million Dollar Man, and Starkey and Hutch, and Dot Hammer was played by Susan Howard, famous for her role on the TV show Dallas. You’d also recognize Sissy Hammer; she was played by Marsha Brady actress Maureen McCormick. And Jack Starkey, played by William Conrad of Jake and the Fatman fame. And Uncle Bill, played by character actor Dub Taylor. But these wonderful actors couldn’t save a movie that lacked cohesion, lacked identity, and ultimately, lacked substance.

As a document that portrays the American South, Moonshine County Express gives in to the temptation to do its work with cardboard cut-outs rather than dynamic characters. While JB and Dot have a little bit of depth, the script doesn’t let them have much. For example, JB might love Dot, but he lacks what any good Southern boy would gave: sympathy for someone whose father just died. Moreover, after the massacre at the still that opens the movie, the only grave dug in the small town’s cemetery was for Pap Hammer— what did they do, leaving all the other bodies out in the woods? As I watched this exploitation film, which was set in some fictional Southern place, the need to replace humanity with action was obvious. Sure, in the South, we have our local hot shots, bullies, drunk uncles, and napping lawyers, but they have lives and friends and families and emotions. This movie stripped all that away, so it could try to wow audiences speeding cars and violence. It didn’t work.

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