Burt Reynolds in White Lightning
Burt Reynolds as Bobby “Gator” McKlusky, paroled moonshine runner and Marine Corps veteran
Bogan County, Arkansas, Summer 1973
Film: White Lightning
Release Date: August 8, 1973
Director: Joseph Sargent
Costume Designer: Michael Butler
White Lightning was arguably the first of what would be deemed “hick flicks”, a series of rural-themed films that became popular in the ’70s. The story was usually the same, an anti-hero would use his muscle car to face off against a corrupt, and usually fat, Southern lawman with illegal booze as the story’s MacGuffin. Burt Reynolds was strongly associated with this subgenre, kicking off with his appearance in White Lightning, the more lighthearted sequel Gator, and the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit. This first, 1973’s sweltering Southern adventure White Lightning, is the grittiest and my favorite of this trio.
(Additional hick flick fare includes low budget entries such as Macon County Line and Moonrunners, the latter of which would go on to inspire The Dukes of Hazzard.)
White Lightning is set in the fictional Bogan County, Arkansas, run by the corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors. Connors was played by Ned Beatty, in one of his first films since his debut a year earlier alongside Reynolds in Deliverence. The film was shot on location in Arkansas, with many local landmarks visible on screen.
Burt plays Gator McKlusky, a former moonshine runner serving time in an Arkansas prison. His brother is killed during the opening credits by Connors, sending McKlusky on a personal mission to get even.
What’d He Wear?
After ditching his prison-issue off-white cotton suit, cream polyester short-sleeved shirt, and super ’70s striped tie (unceremoniously tossing both suit jacket and tie from the window of his new Ford), Gator arrives at the old McKlusky homestead in his staple outfit throughout the film, a blue work shirt and dark jeans with boots. There are slight variations on each one as the plot thickens, but the core remains the same.
Gator’s first shirt is a sky blue lightweight polyester snap-down. It is a very typical shirt as seen in these types of movies, with Western-style single-pointed shoulder yokes in the front and a rear pointed yoke. Since it is the mid-’70s, the shirt has a long point collar.
Burt wears the shirt with the double-snapped cuffs unfastened and rolled up his sleeves to his elbows, as he does with all of his shirts. There is a white button worn unfastened at the collar and five silver-rimmed pearl snaps down a front placket. There are two chest pockets, each with a flap that closes with a single snap.
Gator wears a black canvas web belt with two rows of grommets around the entire belt, fitting through a dulled brass double-prong buckle. This is sometimes switched out for a solid leather belt in brown or black, but this web belt remains Gato’s go-to belt.
Gator wears two sets of plain-toe boots during the film as well, a black pair and a brown pair. We don’t see much of them, since Gator almost always has his jeans over them, but they appear to have inside zippers and high shafts. Underneath, he wears a pair of white tube socks.
For a brief scene where Burt romances the middle-aged county clerk Martha Culpepper (Louise Latham), Gator wears an indigo blue snap-front shirt, made from a high-twist cotton and/or polyester blend that has a strong sheen. The shirt is cut and styled the same as his first shirt, with the snaps appearing to be more of a blue pearl, although that could just be the shading of the shirt having an effect. Like the first, he wears the top button and top snap unfastened and rolls the sleeves to his elbows. This shirt is also worn with the dark blue jeans, though, he wears them with a wide textured brown leather belt with a rounded brass buckle.
Burt’s final shirt, worn for the final half of the film, is a blue chambray cotton utility shirt similar to a classic U.S. Navy work shirt and detailed with copper orange threading on the seams and buttonholes. Unlike his two previously worn shirts, this chambray shirt has buttons instead of snaps, with six dark blue plastic two-hole buttons fastening up the front placket to the neck, where the top button is threaded onto a short extended throat tab.
The shirt also has two chest pockets with gently scalloped flaps, each closing through a single button. He keeps his cigarettes in his right pocket and his green-covered notebook (for his “life story”) with a pencil in his left.
Gator’s varied jeans are blue denim Lee Riders with a standard five-pocket layout, including two back pockets detailed with Lee’s signature “lazy S” stitch and crossed bar tack stitching in the upper corner of each pocket. He wears one pair of dark selvedge jeans and another in a more medium-dark stonewash, distressed throughout and torn around the bottoms. Unlike the tighter, lighter, and flared jeans that would be increasingly common as the decade continued (a trend that would’ve no doubt made the good ol’ boys in the White Lightning-era Deep South scoff), Gator’s classic Lee jeans are roomy through the legs to their boot-cut bottoms.
Gator’s single accessory is a large, unexplained pinky ring, worn on his right hand. The ring is gold with a flat, square face that appears to be engraved.
Go Big or Go Home
White Lightning, filmed in 1973, is something of an anomaly of its genre. It is what many of the later similar films of the ’70s should have been, an updated version of the Thunder Road type story. Instead, studios and family audiences got in the way and ruined the verisimilitude of the gritty, chain-smoking whiskey runners who cursed and stole each other’s women while facing off against deadly corrupt lawmen. Instead, we were given clean-cut jokesters who let out a few “Aw, hecks” before speeding off from the bumbling sheriff who can’t seem to get his hat off the ground.
(It may seem like I’m taking a lot of digs at The Dukes of Hazzard. In fact, the show was/is a favorite of mine while growing up and I have all seven seasons on DVD, and since writing this, I’ve posted about both Bo and Luke Duke.)
Like Don Draper and many of our fathers and grandfathers, Gator is loyal to his Lucky Strike unfiltered cigarettes, always keeping a pack handy in his pocket and lighting up with a match in his downtime. He’s also not opposed to drinking, with Lone Star beer seeming to be his drink of choice.
Lone Star, the “official beer of Texas”, was first brewed by Adolphus Busch in 1884. Twenty years later, the Lone Star Brewery was built on Jones Avenue in San Antonio. It closed for Prohibition in 1918 but opened its doors instantly when the law was repealed fifteen years later. The first beer to be called “Lone Star” in its present formula was first brewed in 1940. The logo seen throughout White Lightning, boasting of the “pure artisan water” used in the brewing process, was first printed in 1967. This would be short-lived, as the beer was acquired by Olympia Brewing Company in Washington by 1976 and, after a series of acquisitions, the Texas brewery was phased out. In 1999, Pabst purchased Lone Star and announced its re-introduction, keeping the brewing local to Texas though the brand gained renewed recognition as the brew favored by Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic Rust Cohle in the first season of True Detective. Now, you can again drink like Gator McKlusky with the shield-and-star logo on the Lone Star labels. However, I wouldn’t recommend his method of drinking a tall boy while driving.
Not only was Gator a BAMF, but it goes without saying that Burt Reynolds is also. During the filming of the chase sequence that ends with Gator’s Ford flying onto floating barge, stunt driver Hal Needham accidentally landed the car just a bit too short, landing on the barge’s stern with the rear of the car dipping into the water. Burt, who had been watching from behind the camera, instantly dove into the water, swam to the barge, and helped pull Needham from the car. Needham recovered and enjoyed a long, successful partnership with Burt Reynolds, directing him in hit films such as Hooper, The Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace, and—of course—Smokey and the Bandit. Burt paid tribute to Needham by making sure to mention him during his guest appearance on a third season episode of Archer.
For his “mission”, the authorities give Gator a car that impresses him and us, a brown 1971 Ford Custom 500 four-door sedan with a blue interior and a 429 Police Interceptor engine. The car, as the G-men explain, is built for running moonshine and is fitted with a four-speed Hurst manual transmission and a set of Cooper Tire Wide Runner polyglas tires on black steel wheels.
“Well, would you look at that? 429, dual carburetors,” an impressed Gator observes while looking over his new government-issued Ford rumrunner.
We see shots of both a four-speed manual and the three-speed column-shift automatic, which was the actual standard transmission with the ’71 Custom 500, but the film emphasizes the four-speed.
At this time, most Customs and Custom 500s were fitted with either the base inline six-cylinder engine or a small-block 289 or 351 cubic-inch V8. If a customer, whether police or civilian, wanted a larger engine, Ford’s full range of large-block V8s, including the 427 ci and the 429 ci, were available with transmissions from overdrive and four-speed manual to the SelectShift automatic three-speed. By 1972, the three-speed SelectShift had been made standard on all V8-powered engines. 1972 was also the last year for the base Custom, with the Custom 500 continuing for a few more years, mostly for fleet sales, ending U.S. production in 1978.
One of Ford’s top-of-the-line engines in 1971 was the 429 Cobra Jet, a version of the Ford 385 engine (named for the 3.85″ crankshaft stroke). The Ford 385 was offered as a 429 ci or a 460 ci for most production cars, with additional options for trucks and utility vehicles. The engine in Gator’s Custom 500, the 429 Police Interceptor, was a slightly enhanced version of the 429 Cobra Jet with 11-1 compression. It was rated at 375 horsepower and accompanied a Holley 4-barrel carburetor. With an engine like that, averaging less than 9 mpg, the 1971 Ford Custom 500 could pass anything… except a gas station.
1971 Ford Custom 500
Body Style: 4-door sedan
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 429 cu. in. (7.0 L) Ford 385 V8 “Police Interceptor” with a Holley 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 375 bhp (279 kW) @ 4600 RPM
Torque: 480 lb·ft (651 N·m) @ 2800 RPM
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Wheelbase: 121 inches (2700 mm)
Length: 216.2 inches (4660 mm)
Width: 79.2 inches (1800 mm)
Height: 54.9 inches (1394 mm)
Interestingly, a 1971 Custom 500 was also chosen in an early episode of The Dukes of Hazzard (Episode 5, “High Octane”) as Uncle Jesse’s old moonshine runner. He fuels the car on the Dukes’ trademark whiskey and runs until he is out of gas to avoid revenue agents.
What to Listen to
While the film’s theme song is perfect for the eerie opening, it doesn’t do much for fast driving through the dirty back roads of Arkansas. Tarantino liked it enough to use it in Inglourious Basterds though, and that film’s soundtrack is now one of the few places it can be heard.
Instead, this would be the time to listen to great tracks from the Outlaw Country movement of the ’70s, particularly led by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and David Allen Coe. Musicians like those guys felt country was getting too soft and wanted to bring back the authentic outlaw sound of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.
Of course, another option would be to download Jerry Reed, a friend of Burt’s who later starred with him (in Smokey and the Bandit) and against him (in Gator), who provided plenty of music for these Southern flicks of the ’70s.
For the best of both worlds, Jerry Reed’s “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel #5)” can be found below from his 1970 album Georgia Sunshine. The song was originally recorded in 1929 by Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman”, himself.
How to Get the Look
Gator has a revolving wardrobe of similar clothes throughout the film. The base look is a blue snap-down long-sleeve shirt, dark jeans, black boots, and a black canvas belt.
- Sky blue Western-style polyester snap-down long-sleeved shirt with two snap-flapped chest pockets
- Dark blue Western-style polyester snap-down long-sleeved shirt with two snap-flapped chest pockets
- Medium blue chambray long-sleeved work shirt with two button-flapped chest pockets
- Dark blue denim Lee boot-cut jeans with belt loops and 5-pocket layout
- Black leather inside-zip boots
- Dark brown inside-zip boots
- White tube socks
- Black canvas web belt with two rows of silver-rimmed grommets and a large brass double-prong buckle
- Brown leather belt with a rounded brass single-prong buckle
- Black leather belt with a rounded silver single-prong buckle
- Gold pinky ring with a flat, square, engraved face
Also, if you’re trying to channel Burt Reynolds, you may be tempted to wear a mustache. In 1973, Burt’s epic mustache wasn’t yet a part of his image. Sorry.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. To make Sterling Archer proud, you should probably pick up the sequel, Gator, as well, although Archer and I have differing views on which is the better film.
The film is full of one-liners (“You two are more fun than going to an all-night dentist”), but Burt’s exchange with Ned Beatty as the corrupt Sheriff Connors tops the list.
Gator: Only two things in the world I’m scared of.
Connors: Only scared of two things, what’s that?
Gator: Women and the police.
Surprising choice, and brilliant. Gator’s is my go-to casual look, although it probably owes as much to Robert Redford (e.g., Condor, Horse Whisperer). As a teenager I briefly owned a 1971 Impala with the LS5 454. My dear old grandma called it “The Rumrunner.” I quickly went broke keeping up with the gas, tires, and speeding tickets.
And I appreciate the music suggestions. I’d add David Allan Coe.
Nice work. Keep it up. This blog gets better and better.
Thanks for the kind words, as always! Good call with Coe, I’ll add mention of him as well.
That Impala must have been some car! The Turbo Jet was a hell of an engine. I guess the whiskey business must have been lucrative for those guys to keep gassing up and putting new tires on their big block V8s.
Somehow, first thing that pops in my mind is Archer.
And Archer would be thrilled to hear it, too! I loved that episode.
One of my favorite movies. I loved the idea of that Ford so much that I built one a few years ago. It was a complete clone and I even put a four speed toploader manual transmission, with the T-Handle Hurst shifter, in it. It only had a 351 Cleveland V-8, and I sold it before I could get a 429 or 460 for it. What was amazing was how many people would see it and come up to me and say, “Hey, that’s just like the car in “White Lighting.” And, then to see the look on their face when they saw it really had a four on the floor in it. At one time Quentin Tarantino was looking at doing a re-make of White Lightning.
This sounds incredible – very impressive! It would be great to cruise around in that Ford with the four-speed manual, truly a rare pairing. I wouldn’t worry about “only” a 351 V8. That would still blow any of the 2.0 I4 imports off the road these days. Did you hear they’re making the next generation of Impalas with four-cylinder engines? There will still be a V6 option, but no V8. I worry that the age of the great American moonrunner car is over. Better start looking for a ’71 Ford myself!
I wonder what a Tarantino-helmed White Lightning would’ve been like. Certainly different, but I bet he would’ve squeezed a cameo out of Burt.
Good to hear from you, hope you’re enjoying the blog!
i built a 1971 ford with a 4 speed , you can see photos of it on 460forum.com search garage or user name 4dr71
it is an absolute thrill to drive! not many of these cars are out there.
That sounds like one hell of a machine! Great 429 you’ve got in there too. That car must really move! Thanks for sharing.
I sold mine and I have regretting it ever since. Glad to see someone else did it, too!
excellent issues altogether, you simply won a new reader.
What would you suggest about your put up that you made some days in the past?
When do this movie come back on
‘White Lightning’ and ‘Gator’ have always been two favorites of mine. They represent my earliest memories of Burt Reynolds and I remember seeing the previews to White Lightning back in the day when I went to the movie theater to see another film. After watching the preview I knew I had to see it because it had all the things us boys liked seeing in a movie… cars doing burnouts, running from the law, not to mention it had the coolest man in cinema at the time. Burt was in his hey-day at this time and it was a couple years before he made Smokey and the Bandit. The time has sure flown by since then. Hard to believe Burt is now in his 80’s, but unfortunately he isn’t looking so well now. It saddens me to see our beloved actors get old but it happens to all of us. We’re all so fortunate to have seen BR on the big screen all these years. He’ll always be one of the very few all-time favorite actors of mine 🙂