When I was 7 years old, in the fall of 1976, my parents took my brother and me to see our first non-Disney movies in the theater. The occasion was to go see the movie that everyone was talking about that fall: Rocky. So, when people ask me the question, "What was the first movie you saw in theaters?" I usually respond with Rocky, though with the qualification that I had seen many Disney movies in previous years.
However, that answer still needs further qualification. For, if I were to be completely accurate (and honest), the first non-Disney movie I saw in the theater was technically the Burt Reynolds film Gator. You see, Gator was the first movie in a double-bill with Rocky at the local movie theater, back in the day when movie theaters still had double-features.
And, to be even more honest, 7-year-old Dr. K liked Gator a whole lot better than Rocky, and it's because of this preference that I decided recently to revisit Gator to determine what about it entranced my 7-year-old self so much. I also took the opportunity to watch Gator's ostensible prequel from 1973, White Lightning.
As I remember, one of the reasons I preferred Gator over Rocky was that I couldn't understand Rocky that well--the combination of a bad sound system in the theater and Stallone's mumbly performance made the film difficult for me to follow. However, after revisiting Gator 30+ years later, I have to question the veracity of that memory. If the theater's sound system was that bad, I definitely shouldn't have been able to understand Jerry Reed's thick Cajun accent in Gator. Perhaps even then, 7-year-old Dr. K was trying to rationalize his preference for what history would prove to be a vastly inferior movie. My early enjoyment of Gator, I have found, is indicative of larger trends in my development as a film-goer that still have an impact on my preferences.
Both White Lightning and Gator star Burt Reynolds as "Gator" McKlusky, an Arkansas bootlegger who, in each film, ends up working for the law. In the first movie, Gator discovers that a crooked sheriff, J. C. Conners (Ned Beatty), killed his brother, and Gator collaborates with federal agents in order to commute his prison sentence and get revenge. In the latter film, Gator is coerced into working with the law by a federal agent (Jack Weston), who threatens Gator's father and daughter. These films together present a world where corruption is the norm in all levels of the social hierarchy, especially the law, and the bootlegger is therefore positioned as an outlaw hero whose only crime is a refusal to pay taxes to an already corrupt system. While the corruption is localized in Beatty's small-town Southern sheriff in White Lightning, Gator extends that corruption to the small-town Southern mayor, the governor (in an odd cameo by talk show host Mike Douglas), and the federal agents who come down South from New York City.
White Lightning opens with a scene where Ned Beatty and a couple of deputies take a bound and gagged young couple on a canoe trip through the swamp. It's to Beatty's credit as an actor that he got into a canoe again so soon after Deliverance (let alone appear in another movie with Burt Reynolds). Beatty uses a shotgun to blow a hole the second canoe containing the prisoners, and they sink into the swamp. We find out later that Sheriff Conners killed this couple (including Gator's younger brother) for organizing a war protest in this small Arkansas town and to present a warning to any other hippies who might make the trip down South.
(The White Lightning poster, by the way, features every single thing I want to see in a movie.)
Gator, imprisoned in what appears to be a low-security work farm for bootlegging, makes a failed escape attempt when he finds out about his brother's death. He then decides to work with federal agents to bring down Sheriff Conners and get his revenge. In order to get close to Conners, Gator then infiltrates a group of bootleggers, becoming the "blocker" for Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins, playing a role that he pretty much perfected in the 70s).
As a blocker, Gator engages in some seriously exciting car chases with the police, all of which take advantage of the film's small town, Southern setting. In his 71 Ford Galaxy, Gator delays his pursuers at one point through the strategic use of a train that runs straight down Main Street, and later takes them through a lumber yard, on gravel roads, and through fields. He finally evades the police with a spectacular jump onto a floating barge.
Late in the movie, the crooked sheriff catches up to Gator, who gets the crap beaten out of him by the sheriff's men. Before they can kill him the same way his brother died, Gator escapes, but not without getting shot. In the most amazing, non-car-chase scene in the movie, Gator wakes up recovering from his injuries in "Sister Linda Fay's Home for Unwed Mothers," with his bed surrounded by pregnant teenagers and Sister Linda Fay herself trying to cut off Gator's handcuffs with a hacksaw. Before Gator can take advantage of his new surroundings, the sheriff arrives looking for him. Faced with limited choices, Gator decides to take the fight to the sheriff, and this begins the film's final car chase. This final chase is fantastically entertaining, and it concludes with a particularly effective and inventive method for disposing of the sheriff.
In a discussion of "neo-noir" films of the 70s that appeared in the backmatter of issue 5 of Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips's comic series Criminal, writer Charlie Huston recommends White Lightning as an alternative example of the kind of revenge thriller exemplified by the original Get Carter. Huston writes, "This is the Burt we should have gotten to grow up with, the one that never tried on that first hairpiece, who never married Loni Anderson. ... [A]ll you can do is hang your jaw and ask what the fuck happened to that incredibly cool motherfucker." However, in looking back at this film, I recognize the seeds of the Burt Reynolds persona--of Bandit Darville, J. J. McClure, and Stroker Ace. Here, we have the fast cars, the Southern rebel, and even the high-pitched laugh. Missing are the goofy humor and juvenile antics, but those would start to take their places in the sequel, which would also mark Reynolds's debut as a director.
Despite some similarities in theme and setting, and the recurrence of the main character, Gator is only ostensibly a sequel to White Lightning. In terms of continuity, the one does not follow the other well. In Gator, McKlusky's home is moved from an Arkansas farm to an unidentified swamp, and he's given a 9-year-old daughter who is not mentioned in the first film. The sole purpose of the daughter, who only appears at the very beginning of the film, is to give Gator some impetus for working with federal agents.
Early in the film, federal agents and local police approach Gator's swamp home in order to enlist his help in bringing down a small town crime boss named Bama McCall (Jerry Reed). Spotting a police helicopter, Gator immediately takes off in his boat, thus beginning an extensive boat chase that is really the highlight of this film. In fact, this scene is the primary memory I have from my original viewing of this film, and I was amazed at exactly how much of this scene I remembered after more than 30 years. Still, you could draw a line between then and now and see no inconsistency in my tastes and preferences for movies.
The Burt Reynolds we see in Gator is the solidification of the persona that will become most familiar throughout the 70s and early 80s. He has a mustache now, which he didn't have in the ealier film, and his hair is starting to thin. Gator presents a transitional moment in Reynolds career--not only did he now have the clout to direct his own vehicles, but we also see how his screen persona changed from the serious roles in Deliverance, Shamus, and White Lightning to the lighter, good-old-boy characters in Smokey and the Bandit and any other movie where Reynolds's primary co-star was a car. Gator is, in fact, tonally all over the map, which may indicate the awkwardness of this transition. The humor in the movie is out of place next to the seriousness of Bama's crimes, especially child prostitution. The movie also marks Reynolds's early work with future collaborators, such as co-star Jerry Reed. (Reed also does the theme song for Gator, and it's even more awesome than "East Bound and Down.") Most notably, Hal Needham is credited as as Second Unit Director, and he is clearly responsible for the incredible boat chase that opens the movie. Needham would be the one most responsible for guiding Reynolds's screen success in the 70s and early 80s as director of the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies, Hooper, and the Cannonball Runs.
Despite my childhood enjoyment of this film, I found little to appreciate this time around. What strikes me the most about Gator now, though, is how little of it I could have truly understood at 7 years old. I remember finding incredibly funny a scene where Bones, Bama's 7-foot-plus henchman, slips a "yellow" into Gator's drink, but I can't believe that I actually understood what that meant. There is also a lot of homophobic and anti-Semitic humor in the film (federal agent Irving Greenfield is described as "as out of place as a bagel in a bucket of grits") that probably went by me, thankfully. And I know I probably passed over the romantic relationship between Lauren Hutton and Reynolds and the overt references to Bama's child prostitution racket. My enjoyment of the movie must have been limited to the boat chase at the beginning of the film, the other action scenes (which are surprisingly few and far between), and the broad comic moments, like Bones driving with his head sticking out the sun roof. When I was a kid, I loved Burt Reynolds's movies, especially the Smokey and the Bandits and the Cannonball Runs (and Stroker Ace, for that matter). In looking back on Gator, I see the seeds of that enjoyment, and also I realize that these movies may have been pitched exactly at the pre-adolescent mentality through which I viewed them.
Picture credits: Internet Movie Poster Awards site