In 1958 Robert Mitchum released his classic: Thunder Road. A story about a Korean war vet working in the family business of making and distributing moonshine. Not a box office smash when released, the movie quickly gained a life of its own and played in theaters and drive-ins for years to come.
Part of the American spirit seems to stem from our inherent and sometimes secret admiration for the outlaw. Maybe because the founding fathers were outlaws. Or maybe just deciding to make that trip across the Atlantic, to an unknown world, with nothing but some foreign currency and a little broken English, requires some outlaw daring. Who knows. But it's safe to say, for whatever reason, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guy. We seem to understand his plight. We empathize.
During the golden age of hollywood, the public's affinity for the outlaw gave rise to the antihero. It was a high wire act though. How do you portray a criminal as the hero? The trick was to find a crime society secretly didn't hate. A crime that only meant harm to willing participants. Victimless. Using this idea gangster movies made stars of many a dark character. By the end of the fifties, film nior was a well established style and a natural backdrop for the anti-hero. So in 1958, Hollywoods quintessential dark hero made a film that exercised this concept perfectly.
Although not an immediate smash, Thunder Road slowly became a cult classic (some claim the first) by showing in theaters and drive-ins all through the 60's and into the 70's. It's lead character, Luke Doolin, was a dark loner with the ability to out drive revenuers in his hopped up shoebox Ford. The relationship between Doolin and the Ford was like that of a cowboy and his horse and watching him drive it "balls out" was exiting and inspiring. This made the car as much of a star as any other supporting actor. Cars, moonshine, women and Appalachia; a genre was born.
It would be a few years before the next moonshine running movies of note were made, but the early seventies produced a couple of jewels. 1973 brought us White Lightning, staring Burt Reynolds and The Last American Hero with Jeff Bridges. White Lightning is a great film filmed in Arkansas using locals as extras. It's a revenge plot with a lot of great car chases and Reynolds really nails his character Gator, the carefree moonshine runner. If there's a downside, it's the fact that every car is a Ford LTD. They missed an easy opportunity for a free co-star and the chance to give Reynold's lone character his trusty steed. The Last American Hero is really more of a Nascar movie based on the life of Junior Johnson, but the majority of the film is about his start as a bootlegger. The lead character is not as magnetic as Doolin or Gator, but a great film none the less. The car used in this movie is a late 60's Mustang and Bridges' relationship with it is evident. The aesthetic of the car reflects it's function: hauling car weekdays, race car on weekends. Worth a watch.
In 1977 a rash of low-end bootlegger movies were released. Most were bordering on hicksploitation but the one making the biggest, lasting impact was Moonrunners. Moonrunners was inspired by the exploits of Jerry Rushing, a bootlegger in the 50's and 60's, who was also brought in as a technical consultant. Unfortunately, omitted from the script, was Rushings running car, Traveler. Moonrunners, and Rushings exploits would later be the basis for a T.V. series, and this time hollywood would understand the car's star power. That show was The Dukes of Hazzard, and the car was General Lee.
The success of the Dukes of Hazzard would turn the General Lee into an icon and eventually lead to a change in the public's perception of the Apalachin bootlegger. The wild, dark, antihero moonrunner, was now a shallow, lily white, dullard. The show eventually pandered to children and emphisized the good in good ol boy. This would put an end to the genre for years and maybe for good.
In 1996 a T.V. movie Moonshine Highway would be released without fanfare. Staring Randy Quaid and Kyle MacLachlan, It's easy to see it's resemblance to Mitchum's Thunder Road. To match Mitchum's performance would prove impossible and MacLachlan's antihero, not without a valiant effort, would miss the mark. On the upside, the car action is spot on. The car chases and cars in this movie are worth every inch of film.
Thunder Road is still the best of the genre and is a great film 50 years later. The movie is being remade by Roberts son Jim, who played his 16 year old brother in the original. It's unlikely a remake could recapture the magic of the original and Jim Mitchum does'nt offer much hope with statements like "...it's essentially the same movie, brought up into a modern era." Or "“The biggest challenge for me is not turning it into a car-chase movie." Only time will tell; and when it comes out I'll be there to watch it.