Burt Reynolds was poised for stardom, he had already made a dozen films and starred in two television series. The previous year he had made Deliverance, and a couple of other films including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. After White Lightning would come The Longest Yard, and the bright lights of stardom that had eluded him for a decade of hard work.
Reynolds came close to working with Steven Spielberg, who was signed to direct White Lightning, and even scouted locations, but he left to direct Sugarland Express instead. Joseph Sargent replaced Spielberg. Imagine if Reynolds and Spielberg had hit it off, what might that have done for Reynolds’ career?
Sargent was no slouch, in fact he was probably a better choice than the rookie Spielberg, who had only directed television and the TV film, Duel. Sargent was a veteran director, working for years in television and making a few feature films. He directed one of the best made for television films, Tribes (1970), starring Darren McGavin and Jan-Michael Vincent. Sargent directed a lot of action films, but had also helmed many drama, and brought out the character depth in White Lightning.
I wrote to Sargent once, telling how much I enjoyed Tribes and White Lightning, in large part for the believable characters and story that had deeper than the usual dramatic textures. Sargent wrote me a nice letter back and talked about working with Reynolds shedding the good ole boy personality and putting some really feeling and motivation into his character. It worked, Reynolds turned one of his best performances. The viewer can feel the pain and the emotional tension just under Reynolds’ skin.
The challenge for Sargent was to use the car chases, the good ole boy characters, the stereotype bad Southern sheriff, and the moonshiner theme, but draw something fresh from them. He did. The film had its fun and allows Reynolds to use his charm and sly nature, but it is much more controlled. Reynolds is best when his strengths are guided and restrained. Other directors amped up those characteristics and that hurt Reynolds in the long-term.
Gator picks up some moonshine and draws the ire of Big Bear.
Reynolds quickly became associated with Southern good ole boys films. Granted, there are a few good ones: The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, Semi-Tough. The sequels and rest, second-rate films. They have have sold some tickets but the career lag Reynolds suffered starting in the 1980s was a direct result of being stuck in this genre. I’m a fan of Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr., but he made some dogs.
White Lightning is about moonshine runner Gator McKlusky, who get a chance at an early release from prison, in return for helping the feds get evidence on a moonshine operation protected by dirty Sheriff Connors (Ned Beatty), in a neighboring country. The sheriff is suspected in the death of Gator’s brother. That’s enough motivation for Gator to help.
Working for the feds, Gator gets a hot car that he will use to run moonshine. He hooks up with another runner, Rebel Roy (Bo Hopkins) and his girlfriend Lou (Jennifer Billingsley). He gains the trust of Roy, and begins an affair with Lou. He also attracts the attention of the sheriff, who takes an interest in Gator.
After finding out that Gator’s informant is working for the feds, the sheriff kills him, Gator is captured. Their plan is to get rid of Gator the same way as they did with his brother, taking him out in the swamp, weighing him down with cement blocks and letting him drown. Gator has other ideas and is able to escape, but is injured, and finds himself in the care of a group of pregnant, unwed girls. Lou stayed there once. One of the girls knew Gator’s brother. Gator doesn’t understand why his brother would chance protesting in Bogan County, of all places, but she says he was making a point and trying to stand up to the sheriff. Other good ole boy films would have this out, focusing on the action, instead of allowing for a key piece of character development.
There is an undercurrent in the film of rednecks who hate long-haired kids. Gator’s brother was a student, who came to town to protest, that was his only crime. These were the early 1970s when the Archie Bunker mentality was in full form. The backlash against the students runs deep, put them against the wall and shoot them, Rebel Roy says.
The film was produced by Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner of the Levy-Gardner-Laven production company. They made many Westerns and action films, and The Big Valley television program. The film was written by William Norton, who wrote scripts for The Big Valley and other Levy-Gardner-Laven projects. His life was about as interesting as many of his films, he ran guns for the Irish, spent time in a French prison, lived in Cuba and smuggled back into the U.S.
White Lightning was not one of Reynolds’ biggest films, but it was well-received and made money. It also led to a sequel that Reynolds directed. Look beyond the car chases and the two-dimensional Southern characters, the film has some charm and Reynolds turns in a tough, but vulnerable performance. This was also the first of his good ole boy series of films. Long live, Gator.