When I was a kid (from the age of around five) The Dukes of Hazzard was my favourite program on TV. It was therefore no great surprise that when as a family we got our first VCR I gravitated to a certain type of movie. I don’t know what to call it, a genre or sub genre I guess, I’m not sure if anyone has ever given it a name. Sometimes B movies, others were high grossing blockbusters. Usually featuring bootleggers, truckers and small town sheriffs and nearly always set in America’s southern states. Typically the men (it is a very male genre) are simple talking, rough tough men with rough edges but a heart in the right place. The characters often spent their time just the wrong side of the law or taking the law into their own hands. These films were all made in the 70’s and they belong in the 70’s, there have been attempts to recreate the style many times but they don’t really work in the modern era. Quentin Tarantino has given us a nod at the genre but Strangely Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson has probably come closest with the remake of Walking Tall and Faster, but you have to go back to the original movies of the 70’s to appreciate the genre.
Although it’s a 70’s genre its roots go back before that to films like the Robert Mitchum bootlegger classic Thunder Road (1958). Mainstay of 70’s cinema and the genre, Burt Reynolds stars as Bobby “Gator” McKlusky in White Lightning (1973). Reynolds plays a moonshine runner who is let out of prison to help bring down a corrupt sheriff (Ned Beatty) who was responsible for the death of his younger brother. Cars are an important part of the genre and this movie is no exception. Gator’s vehicle isn’t an exotic sport car but a working class hero, a suitably anonymous muscle car, a souped up Ford Custom 500. From the same year Last American Hero sees a young Jeff Bridges as Elroy Jackson Jr. a character based on real life moonshiner turned NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. Also from ‘73 the original Walking Tall stars Joe Don Baker and is loosely based on the life of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser who cleans up his small town at great personal cost. Forget the remake and watch the classic original.
An underrated actor, Jan-Michael Vincent. Is probably best know in the UK for the TV show Airwolf, his first entry on this list is in White Line Fever (1975). Returning home from Vietnam and setting himself up as an independent truck driver that predates Convoy by three years. A lot of the movie is of its time, but the themes of fighting against corruption and oppression are timeless. I started by talking about The Dukes of Hazzard, Moonrunners (1975) was actually the origin on the TV show: directed by Dukes of Hazzard creator Gy Waldron, the Balladeer (Waylon Jennings) introduces us to cousins, Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg, who run moonshine for their Uncle Jesse. A lot of the elements of the movie were toned down for the family friendly TV show but were reinstated for the (rubbish) 2005 movie. Although fictional Moonrunners was inspired by the life of bootlegger turned stock car racer Jerry Rushing. Rushing was a contemporary of and raced against Junior Johnson mentioned above. The movie is dated but worth a look for fans of the genre. I’m not aware of it ever being released on DVD and the hard to find VHS copies date from the early 80’s but you can find it streaming online with the claim it is now in the public domain.
Burt Reynolds returned in Gator (1976) a sequel to White Lightning, with a similar story to the first movie it is very much a case of more of the same, it is most notable as Reynolds first feature as a director. Continuing the theme of returning Vietnam veterans, Rolling Thunder (1977) is the story of Major Charles Rane (William Devane) a former POW who returns home to a small town in Texas. A brutal revenge drama the movie has more in common with Walking Tall than the other films on the list. It is also one of the best movies from the ever reliable William Devane and an early film role for Tommy Lee Jones. Possibly the most well known movies of the genre Smokey and the Bandit (1977) was a huge hit and spawned two sequels and countless imitators. A lighter more fun and comic film than the others mentioned, the movie is basically one big car chase from Texas to Georgia. Reynolds may be the star of the movie but Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice has all the best lines and steels the movie from under him.
Reynolds was back again in Hooper (1978) reunited with Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham and co-star Sally Field. It also featured Jan-Michael Vincent. Although very different to the other movies I have mentioned in story and setting, it has the same spirit of character as many of them so I felt compelled to include it. Reynolds plays a veteran stuntman and Vincent the new up and coming rival. It is as much a story of an end of an era as it is a tribute to movie stuntmen. Very fitting as Reynolds and director Hal Needham both began their careers as stuntmen. Is Convoy (1978) an attempt to cash in on the CB radio craze of the time? Or a protest at the 55 MPH speed limit? Or even an exploration of equality or race? Its probably a combination of all three. Like Hooper above it is also the story of an end of an era, and this is the speciality of director Sam Peckinpah. Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw are perfectly cast, but the real star is Ernest Borgnine.
By the 80’s the genre was dead having become a pastiche of itself with movies like The Cannonball Run. But we still have a whole decade of movies to enjoy and to remind us the 70’s was about more than New Hollywood, Jaws and Star Wars.