Old State House To Screen "White Lightning" - 1973 Movie Shot In Arkansas

Apr 3, 2014

KUAR is partnering with the Old State House Museum to screen a series of Arkansas-related movies each month on Second Friday Art Night. KUAR General Manager Ben Fry, who also teaches courses in film history and criticism at UALR, will introduce each movie and lead a discussion after the screening. "Second Friday Cinema" is presented in cooperation with the Old State House's exhibit "Lights! Camera! Arkansas!" The screenings will take place the second Friday of each month at the Old State House Museum.

Second Friday Cinema presents a screening of White Lightning (1973) on Friday, Apr. 11, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Old State House Museum, 300 W. Markham. Reception starts at 5 p.m. Free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Old State House Museum at (501) 324-9685 or info@oldstatehouse.org.

Movie poster for "White Lightning"

Only a handful of movies were shot in Arkansas prior to 1970. Then during the administration of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the late 1960s, the state government began heavily promoting Arkansas as a good site for film production. The result was that more than 20 films were shot in Arkansas during the 1970s. Most of these films could be described as "hixploitation" flicks -- exploitation movies featuring rural settings and characters and often targeted toward rural audiences.

The trend began in 1969 with the filming of Roger Corman's Bloody Mama (released in 1970), which featured Shelley Winters and Robert De Niro in one of his earliest roles. Corman returned two years later as producer for the film Boxcar Bertha (1972), directed by a then-relatively-unknown Martin Scorsese. In 1973, Arkansas became the setting for a true "hixploitation" masterpiece, White Lightning, starring Burt Reynolds. 

Reynolds, who had appeared on television since 1959, was just reaching a cinematic zenith with his Academy award-nominated performance in Deliverance (1972). The same year Reynolds became a cultural icon when he posed nude in Cosmopolitan. Reynolds would later contend that the reason he didn't win the Oscar was because of his controversial centerfold.

In White Lightning, Reynolds plays Gator McCluskey, a bootlegger serving time in an Arkansas prison. When Gator discovers that his brother was killed by a small town sheriff (Ned Beatty), he agrees to go undercover for the Feds and expose the sheriff's connection to a moonshine ring. His real intention, of course, is seeking revenge for his brother's death. While somewhat tamer than other "hixploitation" movies of the time (it's rated PG), it does feature fist fights, gunplay, and a classic car chase that ends in the Arkansas River.

Numerous Arkansas locations are featured including the Benton Speedbowl (now known as the I-30 Speedway), the Tucker unit of the Arkansas prison system, the Saline County Courthouse, and the Royal Theatre in Benton. About 100 Arkansans had roles as extras, and Jennifer Billingsley, who graduated from Fort Smith High School, appeared as the female love interest. The movie also includes performances by "hixploitation" favorite Bo Hopkins and Diane Ladd. Ladd's daughter Laura Dern would make her first uncredited appearance on screen in this movie. She was six years old.