About the Author: R.D Francis is the writer of The Ghosts of Jim Morrison, the Phantom of Detroit, and the Fates of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Tales from a Wizard: The Oral History of Walpurgis. Both non-fiction works explore the myth and mystery behind the 1974 album, Phantom’s Divine Comedy: Part 1—an album many believed to be a solo album by Jim Morrison of the Doors. You can read his music and film criticisms on Medium and learn more about the Phantom on Facebook.
Moonrunners is one of the earliest celluloid responses to the massive box office generated by Burt Reynolds’ White Lightning (1973)—and was filmed in 1973 in the wake of that film. Over the years, Reynolds applauded white Lightning as being one of his best and reasoned of his career. That’s because White Lightning’s success was the result of it being the first film that celebrated Southerners and didn’t degrade their culture and lifestyle: it was a film made about and for those folks living south of the Mason-Dixie. Burt Reynolds’s Deliverance (1972) and White Lightning—and obviously Gator (1976) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977)—set those stills o’ bubblin’ for every Southern tale thereafter.
So, if you never heard of Moonrunners, but you enjoyed White Lightning or Burt Reynolds’ post-Smokey and the Bandit, “good ol’ boy” films of Stoker Ace and Hooper, then you’re up-to-speed to enjoy the down-home, pre-Dukes of Hazzard action that is Moonshiners—as well as Roger Corman’s copies, Moving Violations (1976) and Thunder and Lightning (1977), both made to catch that Burt Reynolds-lightning in a bottle.
And you’ll recognize the plot and characters of Moonrunners right away: you’ve seen it before—on the successful TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985). While M.A.S.H receives an acknowledgment as the most successful film-to-TV adaptation, with the transition of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as Alice as a close second, critics have forgotten Moonrunners successfully transitioned to television. More critics “remember” The Super Cops (1974) transitioning to the small screen as Starsky and Hutch and FM (1978) “became” WKRP in Cincinnati; while both drew from analogous source materials, they’re not movie-to-TV projects.
The action-comedy Moonrunners was the feature-film writing and directing debut for ‘60s television scribe Gy Waldron; he convinced the CBS Network to green light The Dukes of Hazzard as result of his writing success on the CBS sitcom, One Day at a Time. The movie and subsequent series is based on real-life bootlegger Jerry Rushing, known for tearin’ up southern roads with his souped-up, 1958 Chrysler 300 D that he affectionately referred to as “The Traveller,” nicknamed after General Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse; the car served as the model for the Duke’s “General Lee”; Rushing was the blueprint for “Bo Duke,” and “Uncle Jesse” was modeled after Rushing’s Uncle Worley.
Backed by a requisite Outlaw Country-soundtrack adopted by other films in its wake, Moonrunners stars James Mitchum as a bootlegger behind the wheel of “Traveller”—blazoned with the #54 (in lieu of a #01)—outrunning federal agents on the southern backroads; he co-starred with his father, Robert Mitchum, in the similarly-themed Thunder Road (1958).
As with its TV clone, Waylon Jennings narrates as The Balladeer to move along the story of Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg (read: Bo and Luke Duke) who run moonshine for their Uncle Jesse in the mythical Georgia county of Shiloh (the real city of Shiloh is in Harris (read: Hazzard) County, Georgia). Between running ‘shine, the two hang out at The Boar’s Nest (also featured in the TV namesake) and race stock cars with their buddy, Cooter (another Dukes’ character). Uncle Jesse is at odds with his ol’ bootleggin’ partner, Jake Rainey (read: Boss Hogg) who’s in cahoots with Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane to “git them Duke Boys” and put Uncle Jesse’s ‘shine stills out of business. Along the way the Hagg brothers help a daisy-duke wearin’ damsel, Beth Ann Eubanks (read: Daisy Duke).
Of course, as with the adaptational softening of M.A.S.H and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the moonshining action was softened to a more family-friend storyline. The “good ol’ boy” style of the series was so successful that Waldron spun off the character of Deputy Enos Strate into a short-lived series, Enos. Waldron also completed a film-to-TV adaptation of Kenny Rogers’ kid-friendly, stock car racing comedy, Six Pack (1983), starring Don Johnson, which failed to be picked up as a series. Jerry Reed of Smokey and the Bandit also tried to get some of that Duke Boys-flavor—as a character named “Traveller”—co-starring with fellow musician-actor Lane Caudell in a failed TV movie pilot, The Good Ol’ Boys (1978). Exploitation guru Roger Corman also attempted to git ‘em some of that Duke Boys-action with his failed TV movie pilot, The Georgia Peaches (1980), starring Dirk “Starbuck” Benedict (of the hicksploitation film Ruckus).