In my local movie theatre, the eye-catching original poster for White Lightning hangs in a glass case, mostly surrounded by theatre memorabilia; I've no idea why that particular poster has survived, since there are no others of similar vintage. I've often thought that I should check out the original film, without ever following through, but Larry Aydlette's mammoth and hugely entertaining February 2008 Burt-a-Thon finally prodded me into action.
The White Lightning poster promises plenty of action: cars, guns, and wild women. It's unexpected, then, when the film opens on a somber note on an Arkansas lake, the tone far more Deliverance than Smokey and the Bandit, in terms of Burt Reynolds's other movies. Out on that lake, a dreadful crime sets the plot in motion. The crime carries an echo of the violence explored, however contentiously, in Mississippi Burning: while there's not an explicit racial element at work in these atmospheric early scenes, we subsequently learn that the local sheriff, who rules the county as his fiefdom, isn't too impressed by college kids (variously dismissed as "protestors" and "hippies") coming into town to "give our coloreds" the vote. Though the civil rights backdrop is explicitly evoked in such references, black characters are rarely present onscreen; there's only one meaningful exchange with a black character, though it does serve to underline the fact that Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds), hasn't been soured by the prejudices of those around him.
In that, Gator seems to have inherited the tolerance of his father, who is pre-occupied not with issues of race but those of class, beset as he is with the crushing weight of work on his small farm. The scenes where Gator returns home are among the strongest in the film, his elderly parents fanning themselves in the punishing Arkansas summer as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of their younger son, Donnie. These characters - like many of the down-at-heel moonshiners we subsequently encounter - are all subject to the whim of someone like the sheriff, in cahoots with the worst of the local criminal fraternity, and determined to preserve the status quo.
As the film unspools, this vein of social commentary isn't always sustained, given the need to provide the kind of thrills and spills promised by that poster, with the tone occasionally wobbling between sober drama and good-old-boy backroad tyre-squealing spectacle. To its credit, though, when dealing with Sheriff J.C. Connors (superbly played by Ned Beatty), director Joseph Sargent never yields to the temptation to caricature a man who behaves as though he himself is subject to no law, and the film is blunt about the tactics Connors either employs or condones.
Sargent is exceptionally good at capturing the details of the film's broiling environment, before the ubiquity of air conditioning; clothes are stained, brows are sweat-beaded, and there's a glaze of heat exhaustion on many of the characters. It's no wonder such films were so successful with Southern drive-in audiences in particular, since they actually provide an exerience with which the audience can directly identify, unlike the often sanitized spectacle of backlot Hollywood movie-making. As Gator McKlusky - my favourite character name from his car crash years - Reynolds delivers an excellent performance, credible both behind the wheel or throwing a punch, but also in conveying the complex motivations of a man whose options have been restricted by poverty and powerlessness. There's a poignant scene where Gator makes smalltalk with a group of college kids - from the same school as his dead brother - that feels like a man yearning for a different outcome for his own life, and that perfectly underlines the surprising depth of the film.