LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Encyclopedia of Arkansas) — Released in 1973, White Lightning is a film written by William Norton and directed by Joseph Sargent starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. It is set in fictional Bogan County, Arkansas, though it was shot in several locations throughout the central part of the state and includes many recognizable landmarks, particularly in Benton (Saline County).
Taking its name from a colloquial term for moonshine whiskey, the film primarily deals with central character Gator McKlusky (Reynolds) and his attempt to infiltrate an illegal bootlegging operation. Upon hearing of his brother’s murder, McKlusky, who at the outset of the film is in prison for bootlegging, agrees to work as a “stool pigeon”—or cooperative informant—for the federal government in an attempt to bring charges against Bogan County’s corrupt sheriff, J. C. Connors (Beatty). However, while the government is interested in finding evidence of tax fraud against Connors, who derives income from the county’s illegal stills, McKlusky is motivated by personal revenge, as he knows Connors was behind his brother’s murder.
Despite being something of a rascal and operating on the wrong side of the law, Reynolds’s character is the hero of the film. In that, White Lightning would set a pattern for a handful of subsequent “rednecks and cars” films that helped propel Reynolds to superstardom, the most commercially successful of which is Smokey and the Bandit (1977). That film was written and directed by Hal Needham, who grew up in Missouri and Arkansas and became a renowned Hollywood stuntman, including serving as Reynolds’s stunt double in White Lightning (as well as becoming his close friend in real life). Indeed, in one chase scene in which McKlusky eludes police by sailing his car off a riverbank and onto a barge, the stunt went wrong and the car landed halfway into the water, which can be seen in the film. Reynolds, watching from behind the camera, reportedly dived into the water and swam out to the barge to pull Needham from the car.
Though the setting of the film is fictional, it includes many recognizable sites of central Arkansas, one of which is directly identified in the film. When McKlusky is released from prison, he is directed to meet a bootlegger contact at the Benton Speedbowl, the original name for the I-30 Speedway. The movie features footage of a race filmed on site, as well as shots of the recognizable grandstand. Another notable landmark is the Saline County Courthouse, which serves in the film as the Bogan County Courthouse and office of the sheriff (where an Arkansas Razorbacks schedule can clearly be seen on the wall). Other familiar sights of downtown Benton include Gingles department store and the Royal Theater. Other shooting locations include a garage on Schiller Street in Little Rock (Pulaski County); various highways, including one where a sign to the Wrightsville (Pulaski County) recreation area can be seen; and inside Cotham’s Mercantile in Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties).
The movie inspired a sequel, Reynolds’s 1976 motion picture directorial debut titled Gator after the main character, but it was filmed in Georgia rather than in Arkansas.