The moonshiner has been a staple of the movies since the earliest days of Hollywood. Literally hundreds of one- and two-reelers depicting the adventures of feuding hillbillies and their illegal mountain brew flooded the nickelodeons of America in the first two decades of the twentieth century – cornpone comedies with titles like Why Kentucky Went Dry, Who’s Who in Hogg’s Hollow and Jerry and the Moonshiners. The backwoods mountain man was an easily exploitable type, ripe for mockery and cheap laughs, yet the cinematic image of the moonshiner proved a malleable one. The slack-jawed yokel eventually morphed into a sort of folk hero, a rugged individualist whose outlaw activities harm no one, but who must eventually fight back against the corrupt forces that seek to destroy him.
Moonshine is, of course, illegally manufactured whiskey on which no tax is paid. In the 18th and 19th centuries, distilling spirits was a family business for many inhabitants of Appalachia and the Deep South, no different than farming or picking cotton. With the advent of the federal excise tax on whiskey – and later, the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of alcohol – the moonshiner became a bootlegger overnight. He hid his distilleries deep in the mountain woods, far from the prying eyes of "revenuers", federal agents sent from Washington to locate and destroy stills and prosecute their operators and distributors.
During the 20’s and early 30’s, the period when alcohol was outlawed in America, vast syndicates trafficking in illegal booze arose and flourished. 1970’s The Moonshine War is an adaptation of an early Elmore Leonard novel (see links below) about such an operation (Leonard himself penned the script), set in the waning days of Prohibition. Alan Alda stars as "Son" Martin, the heir to a Kentucky moonshine dynasty who has hidden his stash away until the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, which he feels certain will follow hot on the heels of the impending election of Franklin Roosevelt as president. In a bizarre turn reminiscent of some of Brando’s nuttier 60’s performances, Patrick McGoohan plays Frank Long, a revenuer gone bad who has teamed up with a band of thieves intent on relieving Martin of his stock. Though enlivened by McGoohan’s loony efforts and a couple of offbeat scenes, The Moonshine War lacks the funhouse plotting and pungent dialogue of Leonard’s best work and is marred by Alda’s ludicrous hillbilly accent and a jarring boogie rock theme song by the long-forgotten Five Man Electrical Band.
1970 also saw the release of I Walk the Line, a John Frankenheimer drama exploring a similar milieu decades after the lifting of Prohibition. Despite authentic locations and faces, an unusual role for Gregory Peck as a morally conflicted Tennessee sheriff who falls in love with the proverbial moonshiner’s daughter (Tuesday Weld), and Frankenheimer’s typically freaky widescreen compositions, this is a logy and uninvolving potboiler. Even a handful of Johnny Cash songs (including the title tune) prove insufficient to pump up the energy level. Though the attempt at injecting some ambiguity into the standard Southern sheriff figure is admirable, Peck is a stiff in the part, unable to generate any empathy for his character. In fact, the tangiest performance comes courtesy of Charles Durning as Peck’s deputy, who embodies all the stereotypical redneck attributes absent from Peck’s Sheriff Tawes.
As a romantic figure of moonshine mythology, however, no redneck sheriff or corrupt revenuer or salt-of-the-earth whiskey-maker can compare to the runner, that devil-may-care hot rodder tearing down the mountain trails with a trunkful of corn likker and the law on his tail. America’s fastest growing sport, NASCAR, originated on these dusty back roads; many of the original stock car drivers got their start running ‘shine. In 1958, big bad Robert Mitchum immortalized the archetype on film and in song with Thunder Road. Though the movie begins with a presumably censor-mandated crawl informing us that millions of dollars in taxes are lost to the American people each year, and ends with Mitchum’s Luke Doolin meeting with the ultimate punishment for his crimes, there can be no doubt where the movie’s sympathies lie. Mitchum co-produced the picture and penned the original story on which it is based. (He also crooned "The Ballad of Thunder Road," though his version is not included in the film.) His character is a 50’s greaser, a rebel with a cause – in this case, his refusal to knuckle under to the syndicate attempting to take over his family’s operation. Mitchum brings his patented mix of sleepy-eyed cool and tough-guy bravado to the proceedings, pretty much carrying the movie on his massive shoulders. Produced on the cheap, Thunder Road played forever on the Southern drive-in circuit, though today it looks quaint at best. Its enduring popularity was no doubt due less to the melodramatics and awkward chase scenes than to Mitchum’s myth-making; Luke Doolin’s 1950 Ford coupe is a virtual proto-Batmobile, complete with quick-release whiskey tank in the trunk and switch-operated jets that spurt oil into the path of pursuing lawmen.
Had Luke Doolin been captured and spent a few years behind bars, he might have become Gator McKlusky, the anti-hero of 1973’s White Lightning. One of the earliest in the cycle of hick flicks that Burt Reynolds rode to superstardom (and the direct predecessor of Gator, Reynolds’ directorial debut), this quintessential "good ol’ boy" picture finds incarcerated ‘shine runner McKlusky being released early from his sentence in order to act as a government snitch against the corrupt sheriff he believes killed his younger brother. Multiple car chases ensue. Director Joseph Sargent juices up some fairly routine action sequences with convincing doses of regional flavor; the Arkansas locations are evocative and, as in I Walk the Line, the extras and supporting players are rugged and raw. Ned Beatty breathes some low-key menace into the stock role of Sheriff Connors and Reynolds, still several years away from his blithe wink-and-a-grin heyday, makes a genuine emotional connection with his character.
Though the old-time mountain moonshiner is a dying breed, a few still carry on the tradition, mostly providing liquor for illegal shot houses in the inner cities. Likewise, while the moonshine movie is nearly extinct, there are exceptions (the 1996 Kyle MacLachlan vehicle Moonshine Highway, for example), though few of them are worth seeking out in the late night cable slots they generally occupy. As a subgenre it may never have produced anything approaching a classic, but TCM’s moonshine marathon is worth catching, at least in part, if only for its fleeting glimpses of a near-forgotten way of life. Pull up a jug of fresh corn squeezins and enjoy.