Burt Reynolds as Bobby “Gator” McKlusky, paroled moonshine runner
Bogan County, Arkansas, Summer 1973
Film: White Lightning
Release Date: August 8, 1973
Director: Joseph Sargent
Costume Designer: Michael Butler
This was the first of the “hick flicks”, a series of 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 himself would be associated with this subgenre, with his appearance in White Lightning, the more lighthearted sequel Gator, and the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit. This first, 1973’s White Lightning, is the most gritty of the trio.
Additional hick flicks include low budget fare such as Macon County Line and Moonrunners, the latter of which would go on to inspire The Dukes of Hazzard.
Now, while my personal dream is to own a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T – the Dukes’ choice – the pants in that show are a little too painted-on to warrant a BAMF Style entry for my first car week series. I may give in in the future, as a Charger is a tempting vehicle to write about.
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 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 ultra-’70s white suit and polyester shirt, 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 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. Not quite a disco collar, but still on the large side.
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.
The shirt is worn with a pair of dark blue denim jeans. They are a standard pair with five pockets and belt loops. Thankfully, they are boot cut and roomy throughout the leg. As the decade progressed and Burt slid into the role of the Bandit, jeans became tighter, lighter, and flared. I wasn’t around in the mid-’70s deep South, but I’d guess that most good ol’ boys scoffed at any man in a pair of painted-on jeans. The jeans have rounded rear pockets with a brown “X” stitched at the top corners of each pocket.
Burt’s grommet belt is black canvas with two prongs. There are two rows of silver-rimmed holes across the whole belt. A large silver rectangular clasp fastens the belt in the front. This is sometimes switched up for a brown or black solid leather belt, but the canvas is Gator’s go-to.
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 button-fastened sides and travel a substantial length up each leg. Underneath, he wears a pair of white tube socks.
For a brief scene where Burt romances the middle-aged county clerk, Gator wears a dark blue polyester version of his first shirt. It is the same cut, 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. However, he wears the jeans with a brown leather belt with a rounded brass clasp.
Burt’s final shirt, worn for the final half of the film, is a blue chambray utility shirt. Unlike the others, this has buttons instead of snaps, with six blue buttons fastening down from his collar to his waist. The top button, worn unfastened, closes on an extended tab.
The last shirt has shoulder seams instead of the large Western-style yokes. It slightly resembles a darker version of a U.S. Navy utility shirt and may indicate Gator’s military history. The collar is large and soft, but not quite as imposing as those on his polyester snap-downs.
It has two chest pockets with straight button-down flaps. Gator utilizes each pocket, keeping his cigarettes in his right and his green-covered notebook (for his “life story”) with a pencil in his left.
Gator’s jeans with the last shirt are also a different pair. They are more of a medium-dark wash with squared pockets. Thankfully, they are also a roomy boot cut. Burt wears the jeans with both his black canvas belt and a solid black leather belt. Both pairs of boots are also seen with this outfit.
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 stepped 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. It just doesn’t quite classify as BAMF-y as White Lightning does.)
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. 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.
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 shirt with two snap-flapped chest pockets
- Dark blue Western-style polyester snap-down shirt with two snap-flapped chest pockets
- Medium blue chambray utility shirt with two button-flapped chest pockets
- Dark wash 5-pocket boot cut denim jeans
- Medium-dark wash 5-pocket boot cut denim jeans
- Black leather boots with button-fastened sides
- Dark brown leather boots with button-fastened sides
- White tube socks
- Black canvas grommet belt with two rows of silver-rimmed holes and a large silver rectangular clasp
- 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.
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.
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 ci or 351 ci 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
Engine: 429 cu. in. (7.0 L) Ford 385 V8 “Police Interceptor” with a Holley 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 375 bhp (279 kW)
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Wheelbase: 121 inches (2700 mm)
Length: 216.2 inches (4660 mm)
Width: 79.2 inches (1800 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.
Music to Drive By
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.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy 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.