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Film / White Lightning

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Before the Bandit.

White Lightning is a 1973 American action film directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Burt Reynolds as the main character Robert "Gator" McKlusky, Jennifer Billingsley, Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, and Diane Ladd. It was written by William W. Norton.

Bobby "Gator" McKlusky is serving time in an Arkansas prison for running moonshine when he learns his younger brother Donny was murdered and that Sheriff J.C. Connors was the one behind it. Gator knows the sheriff is taking money from local moonshiners, so he agrees to go undercover for a federal agency (presumably the IRS or BATF) to try to expose the sheriff. His handlers force him onto Dude Watson, a local stock car racer and low-level whiskey runner.

Watson has no choice but to cooperate because he himself is on federal probation or parole. To infiltrate the local moonshine industry, Gator lands a job running moonshine with Roy Boone. He also starts an affair with Boone's girlfriend, Lou. When the sheriff discovers Gator is working for the federal government, Connors sends his enforcer, Big Bear, after him. Gator decides to go after the sheriff, leading to an epic car chase finale.

It was followed by a 1976 sequel called Gator where McKlusky is once more forced to work against his fellow crooks by the government. Jerry Reed is notable Playing Against Type as the Big Bad "Bama" McCall.

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     Both films 
  • Boxed Crook: The premise of both movies is McKlusky is forced to work against his fellow criminals by the US government.
  • Chase Scene: 90% of the reason to watch the movies is the chase scenes.
  • Cool Car: Gator uses a lot of these in his scenes. All well before Burt Reynolds became synonymous with them.
  • Deep South: Both movies heavily rely on stereotypes about this. They take place in small towns ruled by Small-Town Tyrant types with swamps, car chases, moonshine, and Burt Reynolds.
  • Dirty Cop: The movies are full of these as even the "honest" ones use unethical means to get McKlusky to cooperate with them.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Averted. Though it's more, "illegal liquor or the trade in it isn't bad."
    • Drugs Are Good: Specifically, "moonshine is good." It becomes an applicable trope for the War on Drugs, though, as the police's overreaction to the moonshine trade and the corruption it engenders is all still relevant.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: McKlusky's family has been making moonshine for a century. The law treats it as every bit as bad as making meth today. Played with as McKlusky wrecks hundreds of police vehicles, resists arrest, and flees in high speed chases that are much more serious crimes. This is because he will be sent up the river for years for his moonshining business.
  • Lovable Rogue: Bobby McKlusky is certainly this. He's a criminal but of a type that audiences in the 1970s would find the crimes of to be marginal at best.

     White Lightning 
  • Bald of Evil: Sheriff Connors has lost most of his hair.
  • Big Bad: Sheriff J.C. Connors murdered McKlusky's brother. He's also a racist and corrupt feudal overlord who rules over what is considered the worst county in America (according to one of Donnie's hippie friends, at least). He's also stated to be an anachronism as the Feds are coming down on corrupt small-town sheriffs like him throughout the country.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: McKlusky's brother and a friend of his are tied up in a boat in the middle of the swamp. The boat is shot out underneath them, causing them to sink and drown.
  • Dirty Cops: Sheriff Connors is guilty of not only murder but also extorting a share of the local moonshine business.
  • The Ditz: Lou has shades of this and Dumb Blonde. She's still the Love Interest, though.
  • Fat Bastard: Connors is not a particularly fit man.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: One of the Sheriff's deputies attempts to rape Lou but is called out by one of his coworkers. He stops and puts her back in a chair. They have no problem using the threat of it to get cooperation from Dude's wife, though.
  • Honey Pot: McKlusky tries to seduce Connor's secretary to get access to his office. She almost falls prey to his charms but resists in the end, believing he's trying to get out of traffic tickets.
  • Karmic Death: After an epic chase sequence, Gator gets Connors to drive off the side of the road into the river. Realistically, he drowns inside his vehicle. This results in Gator avenging his brother in a most deliciously apropos way.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Sheriff Connors kills two innocent boys that are tied up in a boat at the start of the show. He does it in an exceptionally cruel way by drowning them both.
    • Connors men threaten Dude's wife with Attempted Rape to get her to talk. They almost do the same to Lou.
    • Connors guns down Dude as soon as he finds out he's working with the Feds.
  • Moral Myopia: A lot of the moonshiners think McKlusky working with the feds to take down his brother's murderer is worse than the actual murder.
  • Morton's Fork: Dude is put in this position by McKlusky: five years in a federal penitentiary or turning against Sheriff Connors, who could kill him.
  • Nun Too Holy: Combined with Good Shepherd. McKlusky recovers in a Catholic home for unwed mothers that has no problem sheltering a fugitive.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Connors murdered McKlusky's brother for being a civil rights activist. He later, explicitly states, that he hates the idea of "coloreds" being able to vote and being integrated into white schools. He also hates long-haired hippies enough to murder them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Surprisingly, the federal prison warden who doesn't add any time for McKlusky's escape attempt and encourages him just to serve his time. Justified as his crimes are minor and he's a nonviolent prisoner except for one incident.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: McKlusky's original plan before his escape attempt fails. He has to make a deal to get Connors arrested instead. In the end, he ends up killing Connors anyway.
  • Small-Town Tyrant: McKlusky's primary foes are fellow Southerners that have a lot of authority and very little morality.
    • J.C. Connors is in the first movie, being a crooked county Sheriff who murders anyone in Bogan County he doesn't like. Being played by Ned Beatty aka Lotso (who in comparison is worse than Connors) further helps.
    • "Bama" McCall is a local businessman who extorts everyone in Dunston county, particularly minorities.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: McKlusky's sidekick is really named Dude.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: A lot of McKlusky's problems come from trying to get Connors arrested rather than just killing him. He ends up killing him instead.
  • Villain Has a Point: Connors takes his bribes to ignore the local moonshining business and spreads it around to his fellow police not to become rich but because he's genuinely offended that they're paid so little for such a dangerous job. He also finds outlawing moonshine to be a ridiculous law.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Connors gets a public funeral and parade after he's drowned by McKlusky.

  • Badass Boast: Bones has one when he's asked why people call him Bones.
    "Because I tell them too."
  • Batman Gambit: McKlusky lures Bama to an isolated location by claiming he has some incriminating papers. He then rigs his hotel room to explode. This takes out The Dragon but not the Big Bad.
  • Big Bad: Bama is a murderous crime lord who rules Dunston county with an iron fist.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bama is arrested and going to prison for a long time but Irving and Emmeline are dead and he Did Not Get the Girl.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Emmeline has two of them that she treats like her children. She dies because of this.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Emmeline suffers one when she runs in to rescue her cats and burns to death.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: McKlusky and Aggie are attracted to one another and hook up but she ends up taking a job with CBS in New York.
  • The Dragon: Bama has a 7ft tall goon named Bones.
  • Happy Ending Override: McKlusky ends up going back to prison for moonshining, his wife (implied to be Lou) leaves him, and he's still on the hook with the law.
  • I Have Your Wife: McKlusky's father and daughter are threatened with jail time as well as foster care respectively when they can't catch him in Gator.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Aggie is one of these, attempting to do a story on the poverty in Dunston County.
  • Kick the Dog: Bama has a host of actions meant to remind audiences that he's an awful person.
    • He burns down a Bikini Bar in his Establishing Character Moment.
    • He sends McKlusky to collect from a beaten down black family.
    • He runs a brothel that keeps drugged young women as Sex Slave servants.
    • He murders Irving Greenfield and sets Emmeline's house on fire with her cats inside.
  • Moral Myopia: Bama actually takes a moment to explain how he justifies drugging and enslaving women. McKlusky is having none of it.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Bama suggests that black people are unpredictable and have to handled carefully when extorting them. He's also extremely sexist.
  • Prison Rape: McKlusky has an uncomfortable scene where one of the Big Bad's henchmen asks him about this while showing No Sense of Personal Space. McKlusky admits that there was quite a bit of that going on and he'd really like him to move away.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: What turns Gator against Bama is his drugging women to work in his brothel.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: In order to get in touch with Bama, McKlusky calls the Dunston police to patch him through.
  • Sex Slave: What Bam does to women in Dunston county in order to populate his brothel.
  • Technology Marches On: In-universe example. Bama has a huge cellphone in his car, which is a sign of his wealth in the 1970s.