White Lightning

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.

For additional information:
Streebeck, Nancy. The Films of Burt Reynolds. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1982.

Von Doviak, Scott. Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005.

White Lightning.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070915/ (accessed January 18, 2022).

Spencer Watson
Little Rock, Arkansas


    The State Trooper in the scene where Gator jumped on the barge was an actual State Trooper, David Author. He is my wife’s cousin who was working traffic control for the movie.

    Clayton Hill Osceola, AR

    (in response to Mr. Crain)
    The lumberyard scene where the car chase took place was filmed at the former W. R. Wrape Stave lumber company, which used to be located off 6th Street. It closed several years ago, but I spent many days at that lumberyard with my grandpa, who worked for Wrape Stave for over fifty years and was foreman of the old engine room. I actually saw that chase scene being filmed.

    Michael Davis Little Rock, AR

    In the movie there was a chase scene that took place where Gator is being chased by the Arkansas State Police through a lumberyard. I actually watched this being filmed; it was filmed in one of the side storage lots of the former W. R. Wrape Stave lumber company off 6th Street in Little Rock. My grandpa worked for Wrape Stave as a foreman in the old engine room, and I went to work with my grandpa that day and was able to watch the shooting of that chase scene and I was also able to see Burt Reynolds. It was exciting watching them film that.

    Michael Davis Little Rock, AR

    I’ve lived within twenty miles of almost all these locations all my life, as I do currently near Atwood Road and Arch Street about four miles from the Rock Crusher plant. I know most all of the locations, like the courthouse where I always went to get my car license, I-30 Speedway which is about to be turned into a a new car dealership after about fifty-five years of operation, and I drove by Scott and Faulkner lake when I was wiring houses. Growing up, when the wind was blowing right you could hear the races very clearly. There are four locations I haven’t came up with: (1) the restaurant where Gator talks to the college students. (2) Big Bear’s house with the hogs running underneath. (3) Rebel Roy’s house with the pond behind where Gator takes a dip. (4) The lumberyard and riverbank where Gator (Needham) jumps the LTD onto the barge, which I believe is on the Arkansas River, possibly Saline River. One that hasn’t been named was the graveyard where Gator’s parents were and the home for wayward girls. It is an actual graveyard located on the south side of Little Rock near the airport bypass. Any answers would be appreciated.

    Monty Crain Mabelvale, AR

    I saw a brief car chase for the movie out at the intersection of Arch St. and Dixon Rd. It was shot in front of the Stauffer Chemical plant that my uncle George Schilling worked at for thirty years. They turned on Ironton cut-off, headed for the blue holes! As a child, I spent many days crossing this intersection riding the school bus or headed to Lawton’s or Sawyers to buy groceries. Great to see it memorialized for all time as I remember it.

    Marion Bates-Lynch Conway, AR, Area

    The boating and lake scenes were shot on and around Faulkner Lake just east of North Little Rock. (I lived on the lake in the early ’70s.)

    Charles Hampton

    A scene was shot in the restaurant at an old motel at the northeast corner of Military and MacArthur Drive in North Little Rock, where a Valero Station now stands. I saw the movie crew setting up there. It is the scene in which Gator finds out how his brother was arrested.

    Ms. Mary Alice Chambers