Southern Movie 54: “Trapper County War” (1989)
If you were to ask me what the 1989 movie Trapper County War was about, I might tell you to imagine My Cousin Vinny meets The A Team. The story centers on two young guys from New Jersey who are passing through North Carolina on their way to California. For some reason, they’ve decided to take two-lane backroads instead of the interstate and have also decided to travel south when they’re destination is to the west. Those two poor decisions land them in rural Carolina and put them in hot water— very hot water. The movie was directed by Worth Keeter, known at the time for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Silk Stalkings TV series, and it features TV mainstay Rob Estes, Patrick Swayze’s brother Don, and Ernie Hudson (the fourth Ghostbuster).
Trapper County War starts off with our two heroes driving mountainous backroads in the fall or winter. The trees are barren, and no cars pass by, but they’re still having fun, goofing off, and making the best of being generally lost. Soon, they enter fictional Trapper County, which appears to be in the western part of North Carolina. Their map is useless, since the two zany city boys can’t figure out what road they’re on. Briefly, they pull into a dirt driveway and honk the horn, calling the residents outside. One of the young guys Bobby (Noah Blake) asks for directions, but the hillbilly who comes out onto the porch just spits and stares at them while his blank-faced wife stands behind him, mouth agape. So, with a big, smartass grin, Bobby replies, “Thank you!” and they drive off again. That night, they sleep in a hay barn, but while they sleep, a shadowy man observes them there but leaves in silence.
The next morning, the pair come into a small riverside town that appears to be a county seat. We see a large, courthouse-like building from the aerial view; otherwise, there is a standard Main Street. The guys ease down the main drag and comment that every business is named Ludigger. They surmise that one family must own everything there, so they jokingly remark that they should try the Ludigger Cafe. Which they then do.
Inside, a pretty, black-haired waitress is singing along with the radio in the empty café. The boys come in the front door, but the waitress doesn’t see them, so they sneak to their seats and observe her performance. When she does realize they’re there, she gets a little miffed, but the two young men quickly begin to flirt their way out of it. They tell her that they play in the hottest band in Hoboken – a place she has never heard of – and that they’re heading for California, where they’ll certainly be famous. The pretty waitress takes a shying to Ryan (Rob Estes) over Bobby, and soon she is sitting in a booth with them. Their conversation reveals that there will be a dance that night, so Ryan wants to stay a while to attend the soiree. Bobby objects, but Ryan insists.
Outside, Bobby and Ryan find a man leaning in the passenger door of their truck, going through it. They say something to him, and when he emerges, it is a sheriff’s deputy. But this time, it’s not the usual swarthy, big-bellied hoss of a Southern sheriff, but an angry-looking young redneck with a shaggy mullet. Of course, the lawman wants to know who they are and why they’re there, and the boys smart off when replying to him. The tension is broken by a big, smiling small-towner who ambles by, asks what’s going on, and tells the travelers not to mind Walt Ludigger (Don Swayze), he’s just like that. Bobby asks what’s up with these Ludiggers, and the big fellow tells him that they own the whole town. He advises that they’d be better off leaving ASAP. The ominous warning is hanging in the air: move along, outsiders, you’re not welcome here.
The scene then shifts away so we can understand the context in the town. The big fellow from the sidewalk ambles into local barber shop, where we meet Sheriff Sam Frost (Bo Hopkins). There are some chuckles had over a domestic conflict that resulted in a killing, but the stone-faced sheriff isn’t amused. After the sheriff leaves, the barber and the big man comment that he’s an odd cat. Meanwhile, the sheriff heads over to the graveyard where he puts flowers down on his wife’s grave, saying, “Happy anniversary, babe.” From there, he goes to the Ludigger Cafe, where the barber shop lunkheads are now at the counter. The woman behind the counter – not Lacy, this is a grown woman – treats him coldly about being taken out on a date, and we learn two things from her outburst: first, they’re relationship is not moving to the next level like she wants, and second, she wants them to get married and leave town.
That evening, we see that Ryan had no intention to moving along, even though Bobby is in favor of making tracks. It’s the evening now, and they have put on their cool trench coats and wacky button-downs, gelled their hair, and gone to the dance to impress the ladies. To their chagrin, officer Walt is trying to pick up on Lacy, who isn’t hearing it. Bobby and Ryan step in, and of course, Walt gets angry and wants to fight. They offer Lacy to take her for a ride instead of staying at the dance. Some man who looks like a high school principal intervenes, but the tension isn’t abated. Walt walks away, and an uneasy Lacy agrees to ride with them as the hometown country band plays on.
As if we hadn’t guessed, Walt and his buddies are outside in the parking lot. Walt comes out from behind a dumpster and goads Ryan into a fight. Ryan kicks his ass with some kind of cheap judo, and Walt’s friends sense they don’t want more of the same. Who wants to get their ass kicked by a guy in pleated, acid-washed jeans? At this point, we’re wondering whether Lacy is naive or just stupid. She has agreed to leave a crowded public place with two guys from out of town, one of whom has just shown how violent he can be. But lucky for her, they’re nice guys, and she spills her life story to Ryan. She tells him how she and her brother were adopted by the Ludiggers, who are terrible people. Ryan tells her that she should come to California with them. She agrees.
Back at the Ludigger home, Lacy goes in to get her clothes before they skip town. When she walks in wearing Ryan’s trench coat, she finds Ma and Pa Ludigger at the table with Walt, who is busted up, and her brother. Pa silently drinks his moonshine out of a jar, while Ma lights into Lacy as Walt sits scowling. Lacy’s brother is there, but remains helpless. After Lacy goes upstairs, Walt leaves to go back into town.
While Ryan and Bobby wait in the truck behind an outbuilding, Lacy packs her bags in a cloth sack, goes out the second-floor window, and drops down into Ryan’s arms. They sneak away, but Lacy breaks it to them that the only way out of town is through the town of Ludigger. Back in town, the dance has let out, so traffic is heavy, and Walt spies them while he is directing traffic. Of course, Walt tries to stop them, but Ryan speeds through, which leads to a police chase on a rural roads outside of town. The Jersey boys and their new gal pal are busted.
Once they’re stopped, the levelheaded sheriff Sam rattles off a series of reasonable charges, but Walt screams back at him that they’ll be charged with kidnapping. Lacy is not yet eighteen! Once the two outsiders are in cuffs, Sam tells Walt to drive their red truck and Lacy back to town, but Walt has other ideas. Walt attempts to sexually assault Lacy, who cries out and is saved by the sheriff. Walt is clearly embarrassed by being caught by his boss and tells Lacy, “We’ll finish this later.” Now we know that Walt is both a butthole and a guy who wants to molest his adopted sister.
Unfortunately for Bobby and Ryan, they’re in the clink. Bobby is shouting for somebody to come help them but Ryan tells him to hush. Then a deputy comes and tells them they’re free to go. Great! Not really. The boys are led out, but when they try to go out the front door, the deputy tells them that they need to go out the back, where their truck is. Okay. Not really. In the alley, the local yokels are waiting on them. Bobby and Ryan have been released so they can be lynched.
As Bobby and Ryan try to walk out of the alley, two trucks pull in, blocking their way. It’s the Ludigger family! Walt jumps out with a pump shotgun and loads the boys into the back, face down. They drive the two offenders into the woods, to what looks like an abandoned work site, and Ma begins to berate Ryan: “You think we’re just a bunch of dumb hicks . . . Well, we ain’t dumb.” She then snatches his earring out of his ear, as Walt hold him, then she tells Pa to get the sledge hammer out of the truck.
We see that Ma is the boss, and a mean one at that. Nearby Lacy’s brother Elmore has the shotgun on Bobby, while Walt and Pa hold Ryan. Ma readies the hammer, telling Bobby, “When I get through with you, you won’t even be able to feed yourself!” But as she goes to swing, Bobby shoves Elmore into them, causing Ma to miss Ryan and clunk Elmore on the temple, killing him. Ryan and Bobby make a run for it, but Ma now has the shotgun and blasts Bobby, killing him too. Somehow, though, her second blast misses Ryan entirely and he escapes. But, he’s living a city boy’s worst nightmare: he is alone in the woods at night and being chased by hillbillies who want to kill him.
At this point, Trapper County War is only halfway through. We would think that the conflict would work itself out pretty quickly, since we have a guy from New Jersey in the North Carolina woods in the winter with no food or shelter. But there are still some wild cards left to play: the sheriff Sam Frost . . . and that shadowy figure who observed them in the barn at the beginning of the movie.
Next we see our antagonists, they’re in Sam Frost’s office trying to explain away the deaths of Elmore and Bobby. Ma Ludigger tries to claim that Bobby and Ryan were the aggressors. When little brother didn’t come home last night, they claim, they went looking for him and found the murder scene. Sam is bothered by the fact the Ludiggers have moved things around, altered the scene, and also by the fact that the Jersey boys didn’t seem to have a gun the night before. Sam remarks to Walt that he checked out the truck when they arrested the pair, but Walt says he hadn’t looked behind the seat. Despite Ma Ludigger’s hard-charge for her brand of “justice,” Sam makes it clear that he’ll try to find out what really happened.
Meanwhile, Ryan has slept in the woods and is now traipsing around. Somehow a boy from Hoboken knows to climb a tree on a ridgeline to get a better view of the terrain. He finds a two-lane road, where he tries to flag down a truck that won’t even slow down. Soon, Ryan finds a backroads gas station where an old grease monkey is working on a white Jeep, and he asks about the phone. The scowling old man tells him that the pay phone is all there is, and Ryan makes a call to New Jersey. But the old man overhears, goes inside, and suddenly the call is cut off.
Inside the gas station, Ryan tries to complain to the gas station man, but the old fellow doesn’t seem interested. He tells Ryan that it’s a party line and that the operator will probably call him back once his folks are on the line. Ryan is apprehensive and fidgety, which prompts the old guy to remark about two out-of-towners who killed a local boy last night. The man repeats what would be the Ludiggers’ version of events, and Ryan halfheartedly protests, trying to pretend simultaneously that he doesn’t know anything about it. It doesn’t take long for the man to say, “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Ludigger, Billy Ludigger,” and he’s pointing a pistol at Ryan.
But Ryan thwarts his attempt at a capture by turning over a wire-framed potato chip rack on him! He then runs out the door, climbs in the Jeep, and speeds away just as sheriff’s car is coming. What ensues is a Dukes of Hazzard-style chase down dirt roads, with Walt half out of the passenger window, shooting at the Jeep from behind. After Ryan escapes by making a daring jump over a log wall that blocks the road, the sheriff’s car crashes. Walt then remarks that’s Ryan has gone into Jefferson territory. He may get himself done away with up there.
Ryan ditches the Jeep, which of course has rebel flag stickers in the window, and goes into the woods on foot. He is trying to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, when a black man (Ernie Hudson) appears out of nowhere to jump on him. Could this be Jefferson? After a few moments of Hollywood-style karate, the man grabs Ryan and asks, “What’re you doin’ on my mountain?” Ryan tries to explain, and Jefferson shrugs him off. Ryan desperately needs help, but Jefferson tells him to walk away, that the Ludiggers are his problem.
Once night has fallen, the Ludiggers have a half-dozen good ol’ boys at the house planning to hunt Ryan down. They allude to Sam Frost being a problem, but they’ll get the job done either way. Poor Walt gets rougher looking each time we see him, after having his butt kicked at the dance then being in the car crash on the dirt road. With her slow drawl, Ma leads the effort to organize. After that’s done, she goes upstairs and tries to make nice with Lacy, who is sitting stoically in her bedroom. Ma brushes her hair and lets her in on tidbits of the news. Though her brother was killed less than twenty-four hours ago, Lacy’s main concern is Ryan, who she has just met. Ma tells her that she’ll need to testify that the two outsiders killed her brother, and that raises Lacy’s suspicions. Ma then gets angry at her insolence.
With about a half-hour left in the movie, it’s time for the action. Sam has organized fifteen or twenty locals to form a search party, though he doesn’t know that the Ludiggers have already organized part of the group as a lynch mob. He gives them orders to split up and move toward each other, to hem Ryan in. Meanwhile, Ryan is stumbling through the woods with the shotgun he found.
Soon, the posse catches up to Ryan, but he takes momentary shelter in a little cabin. They let the dogs loose on him, but he guns down two of them. That leads the group to open fire on the cabin without mercy. Ryan manages to escape and jump down an embankment, but he’s hanging on by a thread. They’ve found him.
However, Sam and his group have come from the other direction. He arrives just in time to see Ryan get away. But he looks at the Ludiggers and tells them squarely, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.” The sheriff is onto their plan to kill the only witness to their actions.
Ryan, who is cold, wet, and exhausted soon finds Jefferson again. Lucky for the young man, Jefferson is cooking dinner over an open fire and invites him in to eat, after telling him he’s a “pain in the butt.”
Here is where the story shifts. For an hour and ten minutes, Trapper County War has been about Bobby and Ryan (Yankees) versus the Ludiggers (Southerners). Now, over dinner, Ryan goads Jefferson into a monologue about race relations, Vietnam, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Jefferson, we learn, was the son of sharecroppers who joined the Marines and went to Vietnam because he was dissatisfied with watching his black, Southern parents work hard and get nowhere. But he came back home to find that nothing had changed; the Ludiggers still ran everything and still, despite winning medals and honors in the war, called him “boy.” Ryan is humbled slightly by the speech, but uses it to goad Jefferson into fighting on his side— against the Ludiggers.
If Jefferson wasn’t sure before, the next scene will convince him. After a brief glimpse of Ma telling Lacy that her beau will be dead soon, we see Walt and his two pals ease up into Jefferson’s cabin in the dead of night. Jefferson is sitting at the table alone, and Walt tries to feign friendliness, but Jefferson isn’t having it. Walt soon turns back into his normal rude self and threatens Jefferson, telling him that if he doesn’t help, they’ll come after him, too. Jefferson isn’t amused and says loudly, “Ya hear that, Cassidy, they want me to help them find you!” Ryan emerges from behind a curtain, and Jefferson puts a gun to Walt’s neck. The Vietnam vet then tells Walt and his pals to leave. They have incited war, and it’s coming.
For the next few moments, we see the two sides preparing to fight. The local hillbillies are gathering, and Jefferson is training Ryan to fight guerrilla style.
Sam, ever the levelheaded one, dreads what is coming. In his office, he hears Jefferson calling for assistance over a radio channel, but turns it off instead of answering. Sam has been staring at his dead wife’s picture, then, for odd some reason, the love-interest subplot is dredged back up. His waitress girlfriend comes in, asking him to leave town with her, but he doesn’t answer and she leaves. Sam has nothing left to lose.
Back on the mountain, Jefferson and Ryan are ready. Jefferson hands him Bobby’s harmonica, says that he found it, then the redneck brigade arrives in a convoy of old trucks. In the melee that follows, Jefferson and Ryan are hunkered down on a hilltop with the country folks below. Ma brings out a secret weapon— she gets Lacy out of the truck and ties her to a tree where she could easily be hit with a stray bullet. Then Sam arrives from the other direction. He wants to get justice for Bobby and Elmore, but the Ludiggers aren’t going to allow it. When Pa turns his gun on Sam, Sam has no choice and kills him. Now, the group is going after Sam, while Jefferson fires mortars at them from where he is.
Ultimately, the forces of evil are defeated, and unlikely team of Jefferson, Sam, and Ryan emerges victorious. Ryan kills Walt while freeing Lacy. Sam and Jefferson go to apprehend Ma and the few folks who are still around. But Ma won’t go down so easy. She tries to draw her gun, but Lacy grabs Ryan’s semi-automatic pistol and gets justice for her brother. We go out on an aerial view of the carnage, and the credits roll.
The sad fact is: Trapper County War is a weak movie. The website Rotten Tomatoes has it with 2.1 out of 5 stars, and that seems fair and accurate. The acting is questionable, the premise is unoriginal, and the action scenes are straight out of an ’80s TV show— some quasi-karate moves and explosions that cause men to fly/leap through the air.
As a document about the South, the film’s portrayals are built on stereotypes and not a very good interpretation of them. Plenty of Southern stories are based on conflicts when Northern outsiders coming into an insular small-town community, but in this case, it made no sense for two guys from New Jersey to be there. Who would travel that non-interstate route through western North Carolina on their way to California from New Jersey? Moreover, if one family did “own” an entire small Southern town, they’d probably be somewhat more aristocratic than the unshaven, moonshine-swilling Pa Ludigger and his unkempt, bawling wife Ma. Also, tough guy Walt gets beat down every single time he engages anybody. Perhaps the most convincingly Southern aspect of the film was Jefferson’s minute-long speech about returning from war to find the same injustice he left to escape, but that diatribe, which has nothing to do with the main story, doesn’t redeem the movie.
To see more posts, visit the Southern Movies page