Sunday 27 December 2015

Moonrunners (1975)

Director: Gy Waldron
Stars: James Mitchum, Kiel Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt, Chris Forbes, George Ellis, Pete Munro, Joan Blackman and Waylon Jennings
Just the good ol’ boys, never doin’ no harm... well, these aren’t quite the Duke boys, even if they start the picture being pulled over by the cops in front of the Boar’s Nest. Gy Waldron, who created The Dukes of Hazzard in 1979, wrote and directed this movie in 1973 and, while it does have some things going for it as a standalone, it’s far more interesting as a prototype for that TV show. Few of the details remained the same, though Waylon Jennings is already in place as the Balladeer, the very first voice we hear. However, most of the rest of what we know and love from the show is already here in evolutionary form, as seeds ready to grow. Maybe the most surprising thing isn’t that the show was based on this movie, though that was surprising enough, it’s that this movie was based on real incidents in the life of Jerry Rushing, one of its stuntmen. Rushing claimed that no less than thirteen characters in either the film or show were based on either himself or people that he knew. Some of them didn’t even have their names changed.

One other surprise is that James Mitchum, eldest son of Robert Mitchum (the resemblance is unmissable), is top billed, but he plays a laconic second fiddle throughout to his screen cousin, Kiel Martin. They’re the Bo and Luke Duke characters, but they go by Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg. It’s Martin who’s given the vast majority of screen time as Bobby Lee, right from the outset. The fact that they only occasionally play the double act we might expect is one of the biggest problems of the movie; mostly this is Bobby Lee’s show and Grady just adds colour in the background as a stock car racer and a ladies’ man. Mitchum seems to know that and ratchets down his performance accordingly, while Martin plays up Bobby Lee to be a wild and crazy good ol’ boy. Most of us know him from Hill Street Blues, where he was just as memorable as J D LaRue and often in similar ways. He’s fond of all the things that a good ol’ southern boy should be and he gets to indulge in many of those pursuits here, which start him out with thirty days in jail.

That’s irrelevant to the real story, which eventually figures out what it wants to be in the final act when a character we don’t expect to die definitely ends up dead. It’s a moral story about standing on principles, even when they’re illegal. Uncle Jesse, who is pretty close to the Uncle Jesse we know from television, as a devout Baptist who can out-quote the local preacher when it comes to the Bible and a true artist when it comes to the liquor he brews to the same recipe his family has used since before the War Between the States. He only sells whiskey that’s been aged for two years and bottled in glass. He also won’t sell it to the local boss, Jake Rainey, because he knows that it’ll be watered down with lower quality product and, given that Rainey is now in with a syndicate from up north, that’s becoming a problem. He doesn’t want anyone running liquor in his area unless they work for him, which means that Uncle Jesse ends up on his hit list, along with Bobby Lee and Grady, who run his whiskey for him. Let battle commence!
Before we get to that moral story, though, there are many little stories which add or don’t add something to the big story, depending. For instance, after Bobby Lee is released from jail and dropped at the county line, he hooks up with Beth Ann Eubanks, a pretty young thing who is clearly the closest character to the Daisy Duke of the show (Jake Rainey’s bartender at the Boar’s Nest is played by the much larger Spanky McFarlane, who had replaced Mama Cass in the Mamas and the Papas). Beth Ann comes with a car which looks remarkably like a General Lee without a confederate flag and a back story that seems certain to be a major force in the picture. She’s escaping her father, a Mississippi sheriff, in a stolen vehicle that she’s already driven over a state line; and the very first thing Bobby Lee does behind its wheel is to reverse it through the wall of a bar and grill where someone poured beer over his head. Like this isn’t the start of a beautiful friendship? Well, Beth Ann just fades away as a mild love interest and her story fades with her.

Perhaps, even while writing a feature film, Waldron was thinking about a TV show. This is far less family friendly than anything the Duke boys got up to, but they were a little edgier in the first season and some of what we saw there started here, not least the character of Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane, who is shown to be an honest cop who started working for Rainey in his last year in office because his county didn’t have pensions for law officers. Bruce Atkins, who apparently specialised in law officers in hicksploitation films, isn’t James Best in any way, but this would still have been improved by more of him. My imagination ran riot when his character was introduced and I was disappointed when he also faded away. It’s no surprise to find that his story, like so many of the others that are merely hinted at here, continued on in the first season of The Dukes of Hazzard. I’m very tempted to follow up this movie with the show just to see how much else followed on. Certainly, three of the actors here played other parts in the first few episodes.

The only one to become a regular is Ben Jones, who became the mechanic Cooter Davenport. Here, he’s a visiting revenue agent from Chicago called Fred who helps to blow up Uncle Jesse’s still on a raid. He’s completely recognisable, even though this film was shot six years before the show began. Cooter is here too, but he’s played by Bill Gribble, one of those actors who turned up early in the show’s run, playing a character in the second episode. This sort of shuffling around of names is everywhere. Everyone knows that the Dukes’ stock car is the General Lee, but the Haggs’ is Traveller instead, after Lee’s horse. Lee’s name here is borrowed by one of the leads instead, Bobby Lee Hagg. Some will remember that Bo Duke’s name is really Beauregard; here that’s the name of Uncle Jesse’s mule, which faithfully runs between the still and the farm, however many times he has to buy him back in auction from the authorities. There’s even a character who stutters, though here it’s a local bootlegger called Roy rather than Sheriff Roscoe.
Clearly the best reason to watch this film is to look at these connections, which becomes a full time job. However, I did watch with an eye on whether there was something here beyond that. There is, but hardly a great deal. The story, as long as it takes to focus, is one, because it tells a moral story with bootleggers, appropriate material for the time when society, film and music were dealing with rebels and outlaws. All the music here, as tame as old country might seem to us today, was part of the outlaw scene that shone brightly at the time with such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and, of course, the man who narrated both Moonrunners and The Dukes of Hazzard: Waylon Jennings. While Bobby Lee and Grady Hagg are young idiots more than they are rebels, Uncle Jesse is written particularly well as an outlaw character and, as ably depicted by Arthur Hunnicutt, an Oscar nominee in 1952 for The Big Sky, he’s clearly the bedrock of the story, both moral and otherwise. He retired the year of the film’s release.

Another is the stunt work, because the stuntmen were clearly driving their cars very fast on and around very narrow rural roads and they generate a thrill through danger that was lost for years until Mad Max: Fury Road finally brought it back. What’s more, they do it without a single leap of the General Lee or one single rebel yell. There are a variety of fast cars here, including a section at an actual stock car race, shot at the West Atlanta Raceway. Frankly, the road race that follows it is more fun. Grady races Zeebo and his cohort Cooter on the track, but Bobby Lee challenges Zeebo afterwards. They load up with bootleg liquor at Roy’s, then race to deliver it to Rainey at the Boar’s Nest; what’s more, to spice things up, they report themselves as moonshine runners so that the Shiloh County cops can join in on the fun! It’s almost like The Dukes of Hazzard in The Cannonball Run, which is an interesting idea. It’s appropriate here too, as it weaves the Hagg boys tighter to Rainey, even as things hot up between the two sides.

The weaker side is surely in the pacing and the focus. Given that all the edginess is in theme rather than actual content (there’s no nudity, no swearing and no overt violence, even though one character runs a brothel behind his bar and most of the rest make or run illegal liquor), this feels like it could easily have been cut into an episode of a TV show, so an hour less fifteen minutes for commercials. The story would have gained focus with that approach, even if many of the smaller parts would have been inevitably cut, or in that format merely showed up in the next episode instead. As a feature, it’s too long, even with my copy running seven minutes shorter than the 110 that IMDb claims. Some scenes could easily be ditched entirely and others trimmed into shadows of their former selves, especially those revolving around less important characters, which abound in this film but are epitomised in a couple of the ladies who surely deserve to be more than just eye candy but don’t get the opportunity to do so.
Beth Ann Eubanks is the most obvious, of course, given that she shows up early with great promise but vanishes into obscurity by the end of the movie. Chris Forbes is sassy and looks great but Waldron must have forgotten why she was even in the picture. Another is Jake Rainey’s wife, Reba, who isn’t remotely like the Lulu Hogg we know from the TV show. She’s played by Joan Blackman, who had played opposite Elvis Presley in a couple of pictures just over a decade earlier: Blue Hawaii and Kid Galahad. Maybe that’s why her name was deemed important enough to appear in the opening credits, even though her role was restricted to one cheating scene with Grady Hagg and another where she literally sits in the background doing nothing except distracting the character who’s talking. Given that both these characters became fan favourites when reinvented for television, Gy Waldron clearly figured out a lot between Moonrunners and The Dukes of Hazzard. I’m at a loss to figure out anything that the movie did better.

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