I Saw a Film! (two this time!)
Starring Burt. Burt! Yes, Burt Reynolds. I was wondering if there were any roles I really liked him in. He was in a ton of crap in the 70s and 80s when I was a youth, especially three goddamned Cannonball Run movies as well as about that many Smokey and the Bandit things that were always on network TV (and I did not appreciate). He tended to get action roles and I suppose I liked him in Sharky’s Machine (which had really fun fight sequences and a terrifying killer played by Henry Silva (and they are remaking)). I must have watched that dreck about forty times back in the early 80s and I am pretty sure I enjoyed him in the very scary Deliverance (which, it was mentioned to me once, did a lot of damage to the South! I had nightmares about the water burials as a kid). I liked the Longest Yard, and the mid-eighties action thing called Stick. He was often the guy who just got out of prison and ends up in a mess again.
OK let’s focus:
White Lightning is kind of the start of all that “hillbilly good guy / criminal” stuff for him. It’s also probably the best of those style of movies he was making. It was also the first time I noticed that without the iconic ‘stache he looks a lot like a young Brando. In White Lightning he even seems to be doing a bit of an impersonation of Brando, which, I suppose most male actors did in those days, and in their early careers (I know Nicholson was obsessed with him as well. Brando’s influence could not be overstated, everyone from James Dean to Chris Lambert had that brooding brow thing going on).
“Gator” McKlusky is a southern townie who fixes up race cars and is favored by the warden—it’s always good to impress the warden—who eventually gets him a gig trying to bring down a bad sheriff who is dominating moonshine operations in his Alabama neck-of-the-woods. The sheriff is played wonderfully by Ned Beatty. I’m not sure Ned ever produced a more calm and menacing character. He seems like a chubby good fellow, but the demeanor hides a killer (he was also GREAT in Network). These types of underplayed criminals are hard to come by these days. I feel like we had a better handle in the 70s on the reality of criminality in film. Nowadays every degenerate act has to be accompanied by a portrayal that is as equally hyperbolic. It isn’t just raving lunatics that do rotten things, and reinforcing that sort of movie trope is entirely misleading. Normal-seeming people can be monsters, but as our movie-consuming audience seems to lose its sophistication—at least in part by feeding us ever more morally simplistic and cerebrally undemanding movies—it seems the stories have to become ever more pro-wrestling like in their clearly drawn lines. And so today we are inundated by freaking superheros in costumes fighting against CGI mock-ups of Greek Titans bent on ending—Pol Pot style—big swathes of humanity. Or literally painted in scary clown-makeup with the same purpose. There is no subtlety and no lesson to learn. How many punch-ups does it take to create the right kind of world? How many kicks to a crotch until you have a person you admire? I should say that there’s always been this sort of film, and in every film-making culture, just that you’d think we’d gain an appetite for more sophistication, not less, as we grow with the industry. The answer of course is that the films are always aimed at the unsophisticated newbie audience.
I’m also not trying to say there’s a lot to learn from White Lightning, but it is a fairly enjoyable and conflicting romp. Reynolds portraying Brando portraying a country race car mechanic bent on avenging his young brother’s death at the hands of the evil sheriff does a reasonably compelling job. The film is largely one of something I’ll call “southern exploitation”. All the ladies are in cut-off shorts, bare feet and drawl fetchingly. All Gator’s boys are Robin Hood style, church-going moonshine-running ne’er-do-wells and everyone looks pretty sweaty. Gator knows right from the start that his quarry, the sheriff (I’m fighting writing of Nottingham here), is the dirty law officer who did in his brother. But we don’t get a scene of the sheriff evilly gloating about having done-in the brother, which seems a requisite in most modern films. He is a crooked sheriff who has crossed the line into a role of lord of his region, which seems easy to do with a bit of elected power.
I was delighted to see Bo Hopkins as Burt’s sidekick. I’d only ever remembered Bo as the goofy “hero” character in things like “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom”, furry boot and sword nonsense created for the kids. Diane Ladd is Bo’s lady that Gator gets to play with while Bo’s not paying attention, and when Bo confronts him about it, Gator just says, are you getting married? And Bo’s discursive lack of response is the end of that! Ladd plays her role over-the-top but is very enjoyable as fearless and sweet country trollop. If only life were so easy!
A favorite line pops out when Gator tells Bo’s character (called Roy Boone, but for feck’s sake, his name is already Bo!) that he wants to take down the sheriff. Bo responds by telling him that it’d be easier to swim to China and take down Mao Tse Tung. At another point we’re treated to a hippy van that says “Legalize Marijuana” on it!
There’re a lot of French Connection level car chases, and this can get a bit tedious on the dusty dirt tracks they choose to play on. Most of the time Gator’s antics are ended the way conflict ends in situation comedies (the worst of which I often call SHitcoms), which is to say there is no real resolution. At one point Gator manages to escape the law by running his suped- up Impala or GTO or whatever the hell it is, off a launch and onto a barge crossing the river. The deputies all go “aw shucks” and throw their hats on the ground, but what the heck? How do they not go get him? We’re just meant to imagine he won that round puttering away on a barge at two feet an hour?. Such sporting law enforcement! I feel like this is the sort of thing that confused me as a kid watching these movies. I mean, we all wanted to be these kinds of modern hero “rebels” having evolved into the ethical country badasses, waving a righteous newly rechristened confederate flag (which now of course, for many has become the stupidest of racist maintenance, overflowing with cornered pointless right-wing rage), racing with the law and getting the girls (they love a bad-boy), but when you can’t see how the fight actually gets won, you’re left rubbing your chin. Even as a kid, I knew there were steps left out. Gator’s car would have been ruined by the stunt, and the law would be waiting on the other side of the river. To be fair the next scene did include mention of his car being repaired but he wasn’t in prison!
Still, I think this mouth-harp sound-tracked revenge story is the most satisfying Gator adventure.
Then, three years later comes:
The first thing we’re introduced to is a very painful country tune that delivers a character description for Gator. Reminding us of our hero’s ability to outsmart the law and reinforcing his legacy as a down-home boy who knows every detail of the swamp. This in the vein of those old country tunes that somehow lionize Dillinger or Floyd. Heroes of poor folks by outsmarting the crooked law officials. It was that age’s version of “outlaw” political news I suppose.
This time Burt is directing and I think it shows. The story is a bit unfocused, and includes a lot of side humor that detracts from some of the shocking violence. In other words, while you’re kind of shaking your head at the goofball hi-jinks of our hero we cut to the villain literally shooting people and setting everything on fire. But that comes a bit later.
Gator is again, fresh out of prison, visiting his aged paw and his nine year old daughter in the bayou of someplace. Again the business is untaxed booze production and consumption (a whole world of books could be written about our right or lack thereof to produce our own liquor). When all of a sudden the revenue men are in the air and on the boats. Gator leads them on a disjointed speed boat chase through the cypress, cutting canoes in half and beating up the helicopter delivered agents. There is a fairly dangerous-looking sequence that made me worry about a Vic Morrow situation, but Burt seems unfazed by chopper blades inches from his ill-fitting toupee.
This time our enemy is played by Jerry Reed (Smokey and the Bandit, and The Waterboy), a small time crime-boss with a winning grin and amazing sideburns called, wait for it . . . Bama McCall. Again, the south-sploitation of the period is in full swing. Southerners are cute poverty-stricken rustics who can’t quite seem to keep up with the modern world. Anything goes in these communities and it’s easy to imagine a kind of third world strong-man surrounded by teenage girls fawning all over him, and so that’s what we’re introduced to. Gator is actually appalled however. He doesn’t like Bama’s strong arm techniques, nor his racism (impressive for ’76) (“You seem a little color blind to me, Gator! Haw haw!”, Levels the evil Bama.) Soon enough Gator has joined forces with an NYC revenue agent and a goofy cat-lady and Lauren Hutten who is a poor-man’s version of Fey Dunaway looking even more like a string-bean, if that’s even possible, playing a news reporter, trying to get her big break with Cronkite in NYC.
Burt’s forehead is amazingly creased. Just putting that right there.
Hutton has a fetching gap in her teeth and seems at times like a gangling teenager at thirty-two. Burt and she have a too-long chat on the beach about life (I love the ocean, but I can’t look at it too long, it’s too beautiful, like you) in which he claims to be good at making babies, pointing out his one daughter. Hutton doesn’t want babies she wants her NYC news-career. Yawn. I don’t remember if they actually have sex, it’s a Look-away moment anyway with a very mewling sound track.
OK it’s time to talk about Bama’s henchman the giant called “Bones” played by Bill Engesser. I knew nothing about this guy, but in the vein of Ted Cassidy and Richard Kiel was a towering heavy. His head sticking out of the top of the convertible as he drove (though I’m still betting he was sitting on a phonebook). It’s always fun to include a “freak show” element in your films, and Bones is one of those characters that’s going to be memorable as basically immune to any normal man’s efforts to defeat. He also has a few cute humor sequences. Why wasn’t this guy in more stuff? Talent wasted!
The ending looks like a series of dangerous stunts and a weird fist fight that has Burt actually lifting Bama back up to smack him down again. Being a self defense instructor I can tell you, do NOT ever waste your energy LIFTING a person up so that you can smack them. Once they are down sit on them, like any school-kid knows, and let gravity finish them off.
In the end I’d say enjoy White Lightning for the somewhat less goofy southern exploitation and Burt in his Brando mode and mis-colored helmet toupee. You can skip Gator (despite Archer’s obsession with it (incidentally there’s a cute Burt Reynolds cameo role on that fun show)).
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