Release Date(s)1973 (November 11, 2014)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: D+
White Lightning was released in 1973 and is one of the first of what became the Southern-fried car chase sub-genre throughout the 1970s and 80s. It starred Burt Reynolds in the lead role, fresh off of the success of Deliverance, as well as his previous co-star Ned Beatty. And while it doesn’t feature much of the over-the-top carnage these films became known for, it helped to solidify Reynolds as a leading man and forever associated him – and his on-screen persona – with the sub-genre.
The film tells the story of Gator McKlusky (Reynolds), a young, suave troublemaker who, upon being released from prison for running moonshine in Arkansas, learns that his brother was murdered by a crooked sheriff (Beatty) and his cohorts. Gator agrees to go undercover for the FBI to expose them all, and also to exact a bit of revenge if he can. Gator also has his hands full with his moonshine-running friend Roy (Bo Hopkins), his affair with Roy’s girlfriend (Jennifer Billingsley), and the sheriff’s lackey Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong).
Directed by Joseph Sargent (who also helmed the superior version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), White Lightning certainly has its appeal, playing well with the grindhouse crowd. While I can certainly appreciate that, I don’t feel the film is quite as entertaining today as it might have been in 1973. The characters’ accents are so authentic that it’s often difficult to understand what they’re saying, making some scenes tricky to follow. The lack of over-the-top action also left me feeling disappointed. I half expected the movie to be more along the lines of Smokey and the Bandit, with fun characters, quips, and car chases. White Lightning isn’t that, instead taking itself a bit too seriously for my taste. If I’m going to watch a movie with this kind of subject matter, I’d prefer it to be light and fun.
The most entertaining aspect of the film is the stunt work, most of which was performed by the great Hal Needham, who later directed Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. There was apparently a moment during the filming of one of the biggest stunts when things went wrong. Doubling for Reynolds, Needham was attempting to drive a car off of an embankment and onto a barge at high speed, but instead missed his mark and crashed into the water. Reynolds, seeing this from behind the camera, jumped into the water, swam over, and helped his injured friend out of the car. Learning about moments like this, you’re reminded of just how difficult it was to make gritty films like this pre-CG. So I would say that I ultimately came to appreciate White Lightning more than I actually liked it.
White Lightning was a moderate success when released, giving Reynolds the opportunity to hone his Southern persona in a way that would benefit not just one film, but the many that followed during the hicksploitation explosion. It was followed by a sequel, Gator (reviewed on Blu-ray here), in which Reynolds not only returned to star but to direct as well. Gator actually has more to offer in terms of its characters, though White Lightning is the better-remembered of the pair.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation provides a transfer that is mostly satisfying. There’s a fine layer of grain throughout, with an abundance of foreground and background detail. You can really appreciate the textures of heat and dirt on-screen here. The color palette is quite strong, especially concerning green and brown hues, and skin tones are accurate. Black levels sometimes falter and crush a bit, but brightness and contrast levels are satisfying. A minimal amount of dirt and debris is left behind in the transfer, but there are no signs of digital enhancement. The soundtrack features an English 2.0 DTS-HD track sourced from the film’s original mono. Dialogue is clean and clear at all times, and a good blend of sound effects and score. The overall quality of the audio presentation, while not dynamic or bass-driven, suits the film just fine. There are subtitles in English for those who might need them.
In terms of extras, you get a newly-produced featurette entitled Back to the Bayou: Part 1, which is a brief interview with Reynolds, plus the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Viewers new and old should certainly find something of value with Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of White Lightning. It may be lacking in extras, but the presentation quality makes it worth picking up if you’re a fan. For me personally though, White Lightning is a film that’s notable for kicking off a sub-genre, but that ultimately runs out of gas long before its climactic car chase conclusion.
- Tim Salmons