In terms of Southern moonshine movies, 1973’s White Lightning is the gold standard. The movie and its 1976 sequel Gator are among a series of great films starring Burt Reynolds in the 1970s: Deliverance, which preceded them in 1972; The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and The Longest Yard, which came out between the two, and Smokey and the Bandit, which followed them in 1977. (White Lightning also came out the same year as another Southern classic, Walking Tall.)
White Lightning begins ominously with two men paddling a canoe through a swampy lake while towing another canoe that holds two other men, who are bound and gagged. One of the men in the first boat is in a sheriff’s uniform, and the other in a clean, white, short-sleeved shirt. The light is dim, their pace is slow and calm, and ominous, twangy swamp music plays. When the older two arrive at a point that seems to satisfy them, the two bound men, who are young and long-haired, are blasted with a shotgun and their canoe sinks into the lake. The older men then paddle nonchalantly back the way they came.
In the next scene, we see the auto shop of a prison where a shirtless Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) is working on an engine and joking with the other men. After a moment, the prison warden comes in to tell him that he has a visitor. In a large, empty room, Gator finds his sister Lou Ella, who tells him that isn’t his mother or father who is dead but his brother Donnie, who was found in the lake. Their daddy thinks it has something to do with the sheriff “on account of them protesting.”
Back in the bunk room, Gator is lying on his small bed, alone and brooding, when an officer comes in, berating him as a lazy moonshiner who he thinks he can do anything he pleases, but when the officer yanks Gator’s feet of the bed, the prisoner jumps up and belts him. Gator begins first to stride away, then to run once it becomes clear that he will be trying to break out of jail! The music plays then speeds up, as Gator McKlusky is making his way through the rural landscape . . . in his prison-issue white clothes and in broad daylight. We already know that he won’t get far. Gator soon runs right into the warden, on horseback and brandishing a shotgun.
But Gator won’t get the punishment that we think he’ll get – extra years, or worse – since he has decided to cooperate with law enforcement. He wants to find out who killed his brother. Up to this point, Gator has kept his mouth shut about the moonshine business and has been doing his time. However, this turn of events has changed everything. In a dim office, Gator begins to spill the beans, which gets him out of jail and into a car with two law men who give him the details of the situation he is to infiltrate.
Once Gator is out of the men’s car and into his own, we get to see the real Gator McKlusky, behind the wheel of a brown 1971 Ford Custom 500 that hauls ass. He peels off his prison-issue coat and tie and throws them out the window. He has the wind in his hair, but catches the attention of an Arkansas State Police car, which is no match for him. Gator flies into town, shakes those cops and another on a motorcycle, and is greeted by two pretty blondes who are smiling and glad to see him.
Next, Gator goes home, to the small shack where his parents farm, but the reunion isn’t as happy as his parents might like. Though their elder son is home from prison, he is home to seek out his brother’s killer. As peaceful people, his parents urge him not to do this, though his father intimates that Donnie’s death had something to do with “the kinds of things college kids do these days.” Gator tells him that he has no plans to get a job or to bring in a crop, but will go to Bogan County and get the sheriff JC Connors (Ned Beatty).
The first step is to make contact with Dude Watson, a two-bit mechanic on the dirt-track circuit and a moonshine runner who is in danger of heading to prison himself. Dude is skittish and evasive but recognizes that he has no choice: work with Gator or get busted. Gator tells him, “I’m gon’ help you make a few deliveries, take down a few names.” About Dude’s resentment at being roped-in, Gator tells him that he only plans on going after JC Connors, to which Dude replies, with a sly smile, “You may as well swim on over to China and get ol’ Mao Tse Tung,” and drives off.
However, Gator won’t give up that easily. He shows up at Dude’s ramshackle auto shop. Dude sees Gator drive up, gets his gun, and goes outside to meet the unwelcome stranger, but Gator sneaks around, goes inside, and meets him, taking the gun away. The men fuss with each other, and Gator punches Dude for calling him a “stool pigeon,” then they get down to business. Gator explains that he only wants Connors because his brother was killed, and Dude retorts that he doesn’t care a lick for Connors, but isn’t fool enough to help— and moreover, obtaining legal proof to convict Connors would be impossible. Everybody is involved, and no one is going to crack under pressure. Ultimately, Dude says, “If you want to get that sheriff, you’re gon’ have to kill him.” But he decides to help Gator anyway.
The two men proceed into town to introduce Gator around. As they get out of the car and move across the street to the pool hall, a bright green truck with the words LEGALIZE MARJIUANA on it drives in front them. Gator says, “If they ever legalize that shit, it’ll ruin moonshine forever,” then grumbles about his disdain for long-haired hippies. After Dude stops and speaks to a young blonde woman sitting in her car, he and Gator go inside to meet Rebel Roy, a smiling young man in a cowboy hat who avoids Gator’s anecdotes about knowing someone of the same name once.
Back outside, Dude points out JC Connors to Gator. The sheriff is leaving the courthouse and crossing the street nearby. We recognize the pudgy man in his tight short-sleeve white shirt and little straw hat from the movie’s opening scene. Gator wants to Dude to take him over there to talk, but Dude refuses, so Gator flies out of the parking place, guns the roaring car over to where Connors is standing, and stops in front of him, repeatedly revving the engine. Connors stares cautiously before speaking to Dude, then to Gator, advising him to keep the muscled-up car at a reasonable speed in Bogan County. Gator assures Connors that he will, remarking that there are only two things he’s afraid of: women and the police. Connors replies, “And I bet you’re always trying to hump ’em both.”
In the next scene, Gator is running blocker for Rebel Roy, and Connors is talking to a man in a suit. Connors’ conversation indicates that there is some concern over state and federal officials coming to investigate what is happening in the county, but the concern isn’t his. He says flatly that he accepts the money that keeps the moonshine flowing in the county, because he spreads it around to his men, who could use the extra cash. Meanwhile, Gator and Rebel Roy are toting a batch moonshine and are spotted by the police, who give chase, but once again to no avail. Gator draws the officers to chasing him and ends up making a leap onto a barge, leaving with his car half off the back of it.
Back in town, dropping off the car to get the under-carriage fixed, Gator is informed by Dude that it’s going to cost a pretty penny to fix the damage. Gator laughs it off and then sets about his other task for the day: seducing JC Connors’ middle-aged secretary to gain access to the offices inside the courthouse. Though he does succeed in sweeping her off her feet, he doesn’t succeed in his true goal. Gator gets left on the sidewalk.
By the halfway point in the movie, Gator is in. Dude knows who he is, of course, but Rebel Roy has begun to trust him enough to help with moonshine runs, which has to happen with Roy’s car messed up. Here, we again the young woman from outside the pool hall, Roy’s girlfriend Lou, who has an obvious fondness for Gator.
Roy takes Lou and Gator to the backwoods homeplace where the moonshine gets made. Men in overalls and fedoras are tending barrels of mash and filling plastic jugs with white liquor. Among them is is the balding, gruff Big Bear, who runs the show. As one would imagine, he is immediately suspicious of the new man, and he lets Gator know it, when he snatches him onto the porch during their first conversation and puts a big knife to his neck.
Though Gator has gotten what he wants — to infiltrate the moonshine world controlled by JC Connors — he is in it way deep. Gator continues to try to find out what has happened to his brother, as he also begins a secret affair with Roy’s girlfriend Lou. Connors finds out that someone on the inside is a rat, and the lawmen that Gator is working with show up to Dude’s garage in broad daylight to check on how things are going. Two-thirds of the way into White Lightning, Gator’s chances don’t look good, especially when Connors and his deputies corner Dude’s wife (Diane Ladd), who tells them that Gator is hauling liquor with Roy.
While Gator tries to move closer to his goal of getting revenge on his brother’s killer, the path is full of every kind of peril. He nearly gets caught searching Big Bear’s house, and then in a black juke joint where they make a delivery, the bartender used to know his father. Out back of the juke joint, Roy confronts him about Lou, and the two men get in a fight. Across town, Connors is at Dude’s parents’ house intimidating them into providing Dude’s whereabouts.
That night, when Roy and Gator arrive an isolated house to make a delivery, Dude unexpectedly runs out of the woods, telling them frantically that they have to leave. Suddenly, gunfire comes from the darkness, and Dude is shot dead! Sheriff’s deputies emerge, and the fight ends with the deputies subduing and kidnapping Lou and Gator.
It looks like it’s all over for Gator McKlusky now. He is being held by Big Bear and the deputies, who intend to kill him. However, Gator creates a ruse by appealing to men’s salacious side and convincing them to go search around on Lou’s body to look for her tattoo. When they are distracted, drunk and laughing, Gator uses the opportunity to break loose, fight them off, and rescue Lou, who drives them away.
Badly beaten, Gator passes out and wakes up with a bandage covering half of his face. A woman is using a hacksaw to cut the handcuffs off of him, and he is surrounded by young, pregnant women. Gator doesn’t know it yet, but Lou has taken him to the home for unwed mothers where she once had a baby. Back on the main scene, JC Connors is at Dude’s funeral, as the cast of familiar faces mourn. He is not going to lose control of his county.
At the unwed mothers’ home, Gator gets stopped by a young blonde hippie to ask if he had a brother named Donnie. The girl went to college with Gator’s brother, and now Gator will finally get his answers. It was Donnie, the woman tells him, who decided to gather up some of his young friends and go protest in the worst county of the state. They were staying in a motel room before heading back to the college, when the manager called the sheriff, who came to see about them. Donnie told the sheriff that, without a search warrant, he could do nothing to them, then called him some choice names, but the sheriff didn’t tolerate it. He punched Donnie, then took him and another young protester, and “that was it,” she said. The group never saw them again. Gator can’t understand what Donnie had to protest about, or why he would do it in Bogan County. He was the only one who ever amounted to anything, Gator says to no one in particular.
The brief monologue is then interrupted by another young woman loud-whispering to them that the sheriff is out front looking for Gator! It’s time to rev up that Custom 500 again. On his way out, Gator tries to back over Connors at high-speed but the sheriff, and Connors and his deputies shoot at Gator at he tears off. The music kicks in again, and the chase is on!
Up and down dirt roads and through fields full of crops, Gator eludes the sheriff and his men. It all finally culminates when Gator, the archetypal trickster, makes one last shifty move, parking on an embankment that looks like a hill. He leans coolly against his car and watches a smiling Connors, who believes that he has his man, sail over top, land in the lake, and drown. Last we see of JC Connors, his little hat floats to the top. White Lightning ends with Connors’ massive law-enforcement funeral, which Gator and Lou watch from the sidewalk, among the crowds.
According to TCM’s webpage on the film, White Lightning
traded on some of the most blatant stereotypes of the South corrupt politicians and law enforcers, car chases, irascible outlaws, and sexy Daisy Duke-clad beauties. But the popularity of the films [like this one] lay in their comic tone, playing the normally clichéd elements cartoonishly, and in Reynolds’ self-mocking machismo.
Also, a review titled “All Them Damn Hippies” on the website We are the Mutants also makes a solid assessment about the themes:
White Lightning is the first in a long line of films and TV series about righteous lawbreakers in the post-Vietnam American South, where corrupt cops chase hot-rodding bootleggers and paid-by-the-mile truckers through the meager towns and backwoods scorned by “the people in Washington,” a mythical land whose isolated, protective communities both resent and revel in their perceived marginalization. These films are anti-establishment but also anti-counterculture, sort of an ideological counterpoint to 1969’s Easy Rider, a cribbing of the heroics of 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, whose Southern protagonist was sentenced to a chain gang for a universally admirable crime: destroying parking meters.
Yet, not everyone was so positive. At the time of its release, The New York Times‘ review called White Lighting a “fairly awful movie that keeps producing good things—scenes, performances, moments of insight—that seem connected to better ideas than anything suggested in the film’s larger intentions.” Whatever its flaws or weaknesses, one thing is certain: it launched a genre.