Back in the 1970’s Burt Reynolds was easily one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. Quite an accomplishment considering some of his rivals included such heavy weights as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, etc. etc.
Today, he is probably best known for two movies/roles: The wannabe outdoorsman Lewis in the 1972 adaptation of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance and the 1977 action/comedy Smokey and the Bandit. But his success in the movies, of course, wasn’t limited to just those two roles.
Perhaps falling a hair under those two films (at least in terms of recognizability) are his “Gator” films, 1973’s White Lightning and its 1976 sequel Gator. A recent episode of Archer (catch it if you can, it is quite hilarious, an animated spy version of Reno 911) had Burt Reynolds as a “guest”, and one of the more amusing comments by the show’s dazed protagonist was his pitch to Burt Reynolds to make a sequel to Gator, and Burt noting that the movie was a sequel.
Which brings us back to White Lightning. Watching the film recently was an interesting experience. The passage of time may have dulled some of the movie’s more exciting set pieces (mostly involving car chases), but the Burt Reynolds charisma shines very bright in this film. The plot is simple enough: Gator McKlusky (Reynolds) is “good ol’ Southern boy”, a bootlegger currently in jail serving a small sentence. He’s due out in a year or two, but when word comes that his younger brother was found dead, he is filled with righteous fury. And when the rumor comes that his death was the result of the action of Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty), he agrees to go undercover with the Feds to take the man down.
What follows is Gator’s attempts to infiltrate the moonshining organization in Connors’ town. But when Connors gets wind he has a Fed infiltrator in his territory, things go from bad to worse.
I have to admit, while I enjoyed White Lightning, I found Gator an overall better film, if only because the villain in the later film, played by Jerry Reed (who would join up with Burt Reynolds once again in Smokey and the Bandit in a very, very different role!), was soooo much more detestable than Ned Beatty’s Sheriff Connors.
Still, one has to admit that watching White Lightning you see the very beginning of things that were to come. Turn the movie’s plot a little this way -and into comedy with even more car mayhem- and you have Smokey and the Bandit. Turn the film a little that way -and make it more of a drama- and you have Justified.
So, if you’re interested in movie history and would like to see something that may well have influenced works that even today entertain us, you could do a lot worse than check out White Lightning.