Forgotten Classics — White Lightning (1973)

It is very common for budding film cineastes to scour the pages of the AFI top 100 or the BFI for a proper list of films that any enthusiast should see. While that’s all good and fine, often times films are cited merely for their social relevance or outrageous popularity, (See: Rocky, Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump) instead of for their merits as an expertly made piece of cinema. As a result, literally hundred of films are left at the door, only to be forgotten by a large majority of the filmgoing public. Forgotten Classics seeks to change  that by hopefully bringing to light a few of these films thus spurring your interest enough to go out and put one of them on your Netflix Queue.

Are you fan of Toy Story 3 or Rango? How about Cool Hand Luke, revenge flicks or anything by Tarantino for that matter? If you answered “Yes” to any of these, chances are you’ll get a kick out of this one.

White Lightning (1978)

Dir. Joseph Sargent

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and the film debut of a 6-year-old Laura Dern.

Before he was swindling alcohol over county lines in Smokey and the Bandit, Burt Reynolds was Gator McKlusky, a tough-as-nails ex-con hired by the local authorities to break up the empire of a moonshine kingpin who also happens to be the murderer of his younger brother. If that synopsis does not entice you, what if told you that the villain is played by Ned Beatty, who before this film was only known to audiences as the guy who was raped in Deliverance and after it was almost exclusively cast as ruthless villains in films such as Toy Story 3 and Rango. If you watch this performance, you’ll see why his career flip flop is hardly surprising. He’s so evil in this movie, there’s no way you could cast him as a pansy after seeing it. In fact, I bet he could’ve convinced Jonathan Demme to hire him as Hannibal Lecter simply by slipping him a VHS copy of it.

In addition to being an endlessly enjoyable revenge flick, White Lightning is also a fascinating look into the attitude of the American South during the early 1970s. Traditionally Conservative counties were being invaded by the counterculture movement and the story puts Gator McKlusky smack dab in the middle of this cultural divide. We see Cowboys, hippies, moonshine swindlers and Bible humpers, and the best part is, they’re all at odds with each other. Sargent perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of the film’s eccentric Arkansas location.

If you haven’t seen White Lightning you’ve certainly heard its music. Quentin Tarantino commissioned Wu Tang Clan’s RZA to remix the film’s theme for the Crazy 88’s fight in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and again used the score during the first Nazi-scalping sequence in Inglourious Basterds.

It has also been referenced in television shows such as The Simpsons and Archer, but is strangely forgotten by most fans of the genre. Maybe if it had been directed by Steven Spielberg, who was originally set to make his directorial debut with this film, it would have been anointed as the seminal action classic that it so truly is.

Here’s hoping Joseph Sargent’s 1973 thrill ride will one day gain more popularity than just another unremembered title on Burt Reynolds’ IMDB page.

Note: Do not confuse White Lightning with the 1976 Burt Reynolds directed, Gator. Though he’s named Gator McKlusky in both films, the comparisons should end there. From everything I’ve heard, Gator is one to skip.

— Ryan Edgington