Burt Reynolds said that White Lightning was “the beginning of a whole series of films made in the South, about the South and for the South. No one cares if the picture was ever distributed north of the Mason-Dixon line because you could make back the cost of the negative just in Memphis alone. Anything outside of that was just gravy.”
It was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg after his films Duel, Something Evil and Savage. The famous director said, “I spent two-and-a-half months on the film, met Burt once, found most of the locations and began to cast the movie, until I realized it wasn’t something that I wanted to do for a first film. I didn’t want to start my career as a hard-hat, journeyman director. I wanted to do something that was a little more personal.” He left the film to direct Sugarland Express instead.
Bobby “Gator” McKlusky (Reynolds) is serving time in an Arkansas prison for running moonshine when he discovers that his brother Donny was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty). He agrees to go undercover to get the dirt on the sheriff.
He’s teamed with Dude Watson, a local stock car racer and moonshine runner on probation. Gator gets his own job doing the same thing alongside Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins). Of course, once he gets one look at Boone’s woman Lou and running afoul of Connors’ henchman, Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong, Pruneface from Dick Tracy). Diane Ladd shows up as Maggie and an uncredited Laura Dern plays her daughter.
White Lightning was directed by Joseph Sargent, who was also responsible for Nightmare and Jaws The Revenge. It’d be followed by Gator, with only Reynolds returning. If it wasn’t for these two movies, we wouldn’t have so many of the films we’ve covered this week.