Southern Movie 45: “Macon County Line” (1974)
Written, produced by, and starring Max Baer, Jr. – well-known as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies – 1974’s Macon County Line made claims that it was based on a true story. Directed by Richard Compton, who later in the ’80s would direct action TV shows like Hill Street Blues and TJ Hooker, the movie might be about the two young rabble-rousers who we meet in the beginning, but it might be about the sheriff in Macon County, who we meet near the middle. The main problem is: Macon County Line can’t figure out who its main character is, who we’re following in the story, where we are, or why. But that didn’t stop it from becoming, according to some sources, the top-grossing movie of 1974. Its tagline says, “A vengeful Southern sheriff is out for blood after his wife is brutally killed by a pair of drifters,” but that’s not what the first eighty percent of the movie is about. Its slow-paced story is mostly a directionless ramble into dumb luck that leads to dire consequences.
Macon County Line opens by letting us know that we’re in Louisiana in 1954, and that we’re watching a drama based on real events. A couple leaves a late-night bar on a quiet street, and they drive away in a roadster. Then our attention is shifted to a second-floor window where a red light bulb is hanging. Once we’re let inside, we see a tiny room, where one young man is getting dressed, presumably after getting finished with the girl that his buddy is now on top of. Looking out the window, though, he sees three men lighting cigarettes under a street lamp and advises his friend to hurry up and get finished. It appears that her man is coming home. (How he knows that’s who they are, we have no idea.) Of course, he’s right, and the men come up the narrow stairs and burst into the bedroom as our two anti-heroes go out the window, one naked and carrying his clothes. They scramble across the rooftops and jump into the street, running like crazy from two of the guys who chase them a few blocks before turning the wrong way. The naked one manages to get his clothes on, but there’s another problem: they find that they’ve parked their car in a tow-away zone, and it’s gone.
As the credits roll, the two – Chris and Wayne Dixon, who are brothers – walk in the early morning sunlight down a rural two-lane road. A black female gospel-style singer belts out a tune as they walk. We don’t know where they’re going, or even where they are, since the last time we saw them they were in what looked like New Orleans. (The film is called Macon County Line, but we don’t know whether that means Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, or maybe Texas.) The song goes on for longer than it should, but by the twelve-minute mark in the film, they’ve arrived at the yard where their towed car is being stored. An older man flippantly explains the twenty-seven dollars in taxes and fees to get it out, and though the two dispute the amount and the reason, they fork over the money and drive away in their wood-paneled yellow convertible.
Soon, the pair are in a diner, eating breakfast at the counter, while a single waitress tries to tend to all of the men gathered there. Two lawmen then arrive to eat and joke, and Wayne breaks for the bathroom and goes out the slatted window while an old-timer taking a dump watches him passively. Back at the counter, Chris sets up the dine-and-dash, and when the waitress raises cain about being stiffed for the check, the two fat lawmen get up to go after them. However, Wayne has hooked a tow chain from the back of the first car to the front of the second, and when the first officer takes off, the whole front end of the police car is ripped off. As the lawmen survey the damage, the two laughing tricksters go off down the road.
Despite the silly antics of the movie’s two main characters so far, we still have no idea what we’re watching or why. No plot line has emerged, and so far Macon County Line is all characterization. However, there’s a plot point coming up.
As the two now-shirtless young men ride and talk, they see a pretty, young blonde sitting alone by the roadside with her suitcase. Of course, they have to stop and pick her up. At first, Jenny Scott is resistant but changes her mind and gets in the back seat of the convertible, and as the car rolls down a two-lane back road, Chris begins to tell a tale about a judge sentencing him to military service for a crime he won’t name or describe. Meanwhile, Wayne is adding his own embellishments, both confusing and amusing the young woman, who is enjoying the whole thing, smiling and laughing. Of course, we don’t know whether any of this is true . . .
Next, the story shifts to the Southern sheriff Reed Morgan (Max Baer), who we’ve read about in the tagline of the film. Reed is a big man but is also friendly and smiles a lot. He is in a shop examining a shotgun that he wants to buy for his ten-year-old son Luke. The shopkeeper is trying to talk him into something smaller for the boy, but Reed says that he is ready for the bigger gun. The two men kid each other a bit, then agree to a price, which Reeds puts off paying in full.
Meanwhile, the two brothers and their pretty hitchhiker are limping down the road in the convertible, which is knocking now. They acknowledge that they’re having car trouble and pull into a small garage, where an awkward mechanic named Hamp, played by Clint Eastwood mainstay Geoffrey Lewis, is dickering with a customer in a truck over a mare he wants to buy. The odd man and his wife, who is inside the shop, yell back and forth at each other while the young people wait. Chris declares, “If the Lord was going to give the world an enema, right here is where he’d stick the hose.” Jenny laughs, as Wayne stands by. Soon, Hamp comes over to their car, looks at the fuel pump, and declares that a catch is broken. They’ll need a new pump if they want the car to go anywhere.
Our focus is then shifted back to Reed again, as he pulls up to his house. He has gone home to wash up and change his shirt, but we get a look at the informal nature of his work. He has already been shopping for his son, in uniform and during his work day, and now he’s at home asking his wife to bring him a beer. She asks about the gun, and he explains it, then she plops down on the bed, giving him the lovey-dovey eyes, but Reed just smiles and leaves her hanging.
Back at the garage, Hamp gives the young people a hard time about paying, first saying that he doesn’t take credit cards, then refusing to let them charge the repairs after saying that he takes “cash or charge.” They ask the price, and when Hamp goes inside to figure that out, they count their cash. The guys have seven dollars between them, and Jenny offers a bit more, but Hamp’s price is twenty-seven. Chris tells Wayne, “Go get the gun.”
“What gun?” Jenny asks, but without answering, Wayne gets a small .22 rifle out of the trunk. He looks stern and serious and walks toward Chris and Hamp. When Hamp sees the gun, he is startled and worried, but then Chris offers him a trade: the gun for the fuel pump. Hamp is deeply relieved but tells them that he doesn’t need a .22 rifle. He’ll take a shotgun if they have one, but not a .22. They sweeten the deal by offering him the rifle and eight dollars, but he still says no, then offers to fix only the catch for five dollars. It will only take them about twenty miles, he says, but they have no choice.
During this interplay, Hamp makes a reference to nearby towns named Thornton and Macon, where the gas station might take their credit card. Once again, this is no help in placing the scene, since there are no towns named Thornton in Georgia or Tennessee. There is a Thornton, Alabama, but it is in Tallapoosa County, north of Macon County. Moreover, the city of Macon, Georgia is not in Macon County; it is in Bibb County. The opening of the film says that names were changed, but the lack of a solid locale is still disconcerting.
Since they’ve come an agreement about fixing the car, Chris, Wayne, and Jenny all head to the bathrooms since they’ll be there a while. First, we see the brothers talking and joking, wondering out loud about the girl. Jenny is changing clothes in the women’s bathroom. Then Reed arrives at the little gas station and startles Hamp’s wife, who is reading inside. They talk a joke a bit too, and Reed starts working on another beer. Through these sequences, nothing meaningful happens, and the plot isn’t moved forward at all.
Next, our attention is drawn to two men who pull up in a blue car to get gas. While Reed and Hamp’s wife talk about the three young people in the convertible, we see that the greasy passenger in the blue car doesn’t like seeing a lawman inside. He points Reed out to the messy-haired driver, who tells Hamp to hurry up pumping the gas. The driver then slaps some money into Hamp’s hand and they rush off, commenting to each other about the cop back there.
But Reed’s focus is on Chris, Wayne, and Jenny. He goes into the garage to ask Hamp what is going on. On the way in, he notes the Illinois tag on the car, then laughs at the awkward mechanic for getting the make of the car wrong. Outside the bay, Chris and Wayne are cautiously eyeing Reed. They are penniless and have committed a series of misdemeanors and felonies, and we feel sure that they’re wondering whether those two fat cops at the diner have put out a call to look out for them.
When Reed swaggers out of the dark garage, he has a few questions for the trio. He wants to know what they’re doing – passing through, they tell him – and then he wants to see identification. After that checks out, he apprises the three that there is vagrancy law requiring them to have ten dollars a piece and asks to see it. Chris openly refuses, and the other two stand there. This threat is enough to sober the scene, and Reed tells Hamp to hurry up with the car, then follows with a last remark that he wouldn’t like it if they stuck around for long. As the sun is going down, Reed drives off. In the car, he calls in to the station to run their license plates.
In the dark, the relatively harmless trio of miscreants waits on the car, but the two seedy guys in the car are scoping out houses. And while Reed is gone to get his son from military school, they choose his house— where his wife is home alone.
At the boarding school, Reed walks down a silent hall to a room where a small group of uniformed boys are in a study hall. He finds Luke there, and they get his bags to leave. Walking down the hall, Reed compliments Luke on his promotion to lieutenant then asks him to go hunting. Luke doesn’t want to go, since he promised some boys that he’d play on their baseball team. Reed asks him to reconsider but Luke is emphatic, so Reed yields, saying they can go another time. Outside of the school, in the dark, a group of black boys play basketball on the school’s outdoor court, and Luke speaks to two of them, who are his friends. Reed sees this, but doesn’t say anything.
Back at the Morgans’ home, Reed’s wife is watching the news about McCarthy hearings when the two seedy guys from the car sneak in and accost her. She begins to scream but they subdue her. For the next few minutes, there is a bizarre sequence of imagistic scenes that imply a rape. These scenes are disturbing and are stylistically out of sorts in the film, which has been pretty straightforward so far.
Next we see, the young threesome In the car are moving down the road but their car is petering out. When it finally craps out, they pull over and have a brief tense back and forth about how to get the car fixed. However, agreeing that it’s dark and that they have no tools, they opt for getting some sleep. Wayne, Chris, and Jenny seek out a barn nearby, but Wayne decides to go sleep in the car. Meanwhile, having raped Reed’s wife and robbed the house, the two seedy guys crank up their car and leave, and when they do, we see that Chris, Wayne, and Jenny have stopped right outside Reed’s house— we know that they will be regarded as the culprits who committed this terrible crime!
On the ride home from military school, Reed, who knows nothing of this whole situation at home, is having a heart-to-heart with Luke. The boy explains that he knows the black boys from pickup basketball games on free days, but that the school personnel typically run them off and don’t seem to want them there. Reed tries to explain the rationale of segregation by saying that it “make things easier,” and that he and his wife agree with it. The boy just wants to know, “Does that mean I can’t play basketball with them anymore?” and Reed replies coldly, “I wish you wouldn’t.” Luke doesn’t like but says okay.
What follows make Macon County Line even more awkward. Back in the barn, Jenny undresses, and she and Chris have their sex scene, complete with cheesy, sentimental music. Considering that we’ve just watched a brutal home invasion and rape followed by an assertion that Southern racism is for the best, most moviegoers wouldn’t be feeling sexy at this point.
Out on the highway again, two policeman pull up behind the car of the robber-rapists because their taillights are out. The officers decide to pull the car over, but the men in it debate on whether to comply. When they do pull over, the first officer goes to their window and casually tells them to get the lights fixed, but his older partner sees the signs of the sketchiness in the back seat and orders them out of the car. But it’s not going to happen. The greasy one who committed the rape has a pistol trained on the cop and shoots him twice. They take off! The cops chase them. The driver is sniveling and crying, while they greaser passenger berates him for “driving like a woman.” Soon, though, a truck pulls out in front of them, and they crash.
As the unwitting people’s fates converge, we’re focused again on Reed and Luke. The boy is asleep on his dad’s shoulder and has a dream about them hunting together. Some birds fly up out of the tall grass, and Reed has to shoot them since his son is too weak and slow to shoot. Reed is disappointed, and Luke is embarrassed.
Then we’re back to the seedy robber-rapist-cop-killers, who are in the police station. They are being interrogated and denied a lawyer by the older officer whose partner was killed. They’re being told to sign a confession before they can see a lawyer. Both men refuse, and the officer gets angrier. As the wimpy driver cries, the greasy one is told to put his hands on the table. The officer pulls out his gun and threatens to blow his hand off if he doesn’t sign. As the tension rises, the camera shows us the lawyer outside the room, and we hear the gunshot and a man scream.
By this time, Reed and Luke are pulling in their driveway, and Reed notices the convertible driven by the three hooligans from Illinois. Wayne is asleep in the car. Reed then walks casually into his house, but rushes back out before Luke reaches the porch. He tells the boy to stay outside, but he doesn’t. As Reed goes toward the car where Wayne is sleeping, Luke lets out terrified screams, “Father! Father!” Wayne is awakened and gets out of the car, then runs when he sees Reed, who fires a couple of shots at him with a pistol.
In the house, Luke is laying on top of his mother, who blood-spattered and dead. Reed grabs him up, takes him outside, and slaps hell out of him a few times yelling, “Shut up! Shut Up!” before yanking the boy’s arm to go. Here again, Reed’s focus on revenge rather than on his murdered wife is awkward.
Now, the chase is on! Wayne finds his friends in the barn and says they’ve got to go, that the sheriff is shooting at him. Of course, we know that they didn’t do this to Reed’s wife, but Reed doesn’t. And Wayne doesn’t know why the sheriff is shooting. Now, Reed is in his car, tearing out of the driveway to look for them. Back at the station, the lady clerk tells the angry interrogator-officer that Reed called and wanted an ambulance sent to his house, then turned off his radio. She doesn’t know why or what is going on.
The last ten or fifteen minutes of Macon County Line consist of a chase through the woods at night. Reed is pulling an exhausted Luke and running after the three young people, stopping periodically to fire at them with his shotgun. Back at his house, the angry older cop has come, and he finds Reed’s dead wife and the car with Illinois plates. Shortly after the chase begins, Wayne begins to return fire at Reed with his .22 rifle, but Jenny gets shot as they run down a dock. They retrieve her and take cover in a boat, but Reed has gone silent. The tension rises as the trio huddles down. Chris then decides to swim and get to a another boat for them to escape in, but before he can return and complete his plan, a shower of gunfire (from a person we don’t see) kills Wayne and Jenny. Right after that scene, the older cop who was interrogating the real criminals makes his way through the woods and finds Reed dead on the ground. Next, we see the shocking truth: it was young Luke who killed Wayne and Jenny so mercilessly. He is standing over their bodies trying over and over to pump another shell into the chamber of his shotgun.
In the light of day, Chris Dixon is sitting alone in his car as Hamp repairs it so he can move along. A whole slew of people stand, silent and stoic, watching the scene with blank faces. Then Chris closes the car door and drives away as three separate text blocks fill the screen. The first explains that the two rapist-cop-killers were convicted and electrocuted in 1961. The second says that Luke Morgan turned 29 years in 1973 in the mental institution. And finally, that Chris Dixon was in the Air Force and lived in Hawaii. As Chris drives away, that is all.
Not only is the film itself confusing, the story of making Macon County Line is a twisting mass of uncertainty. The website of AFI relays an unclear narrative about a series of events regarding Max Baer, Jr’s involvement in the film, and the website Images had this to say:
During the movie’s opening credits, the movie is labeled with the following text: “This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed.” However, during the videotaped interviews also contained on this [re-release] DVD, Max Baer reveals this claim is bogus. During test screenings, audiences complained about the movie’s contrivances. So Baer and Compton used the “true” story claim as a way of justifying the coincidences that propel the action forward. And once the movie was labeled as based upon a real-life event, these complaints disappeared entirely. Even today, critics dutifully report that the movie is “based on fact” (Leonard Maltin, Movie & Video Guide).
Notwithstanding the movie’s flaws, the portrayals in Macon County Line smack of Southern-ness but the story doesn’t build itself around them. Reed Morgan is a stereotypical Southern sheriff: friendly to locals, unfriendly to strangers, interested in guns and beer, supportive of segregation, and of course, and sporting a Confederate flag on the sleeve of his uniform. Beyond that, the sleepy slowness of other characters’ behavior also belies a Southern-ness.
But the problem in assessing this movie is that it isn’t really clear what it is about. Chris is only character we meet in the beginning who is alive at the end, but the movie isn’t really about him. The ending is about Luke, who we don’t meet until two-thirds of the way through the movie, and though Reed is a main character, his death is undeveloped and shrouded by darkness . . . If you ask me, Macon County Line may have been a popular when it was released, but it’s also clear why it faded into obscurity.