Friday, December 30, 2005

Paper: Luke Doolin and the Good Old Boys: The Portrayal of Appalachian Moonshining and Masculinity in Hixploitation Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s

While the practice of manufacturing, selling, and consuming illegal moonshine whiskey doesn’t seem to be a key feature of contemporary Appalachian life, it is no doubt an archetypal characteristic of Appalachian history and lore. Indeed, illegal distilling operations, the government’s efforts to regulate and tax them, and the passionate resistance of such regulations are very much a part of the Appalachian narrative. As a general interest in Appalachia developed in the late nineteenth century, this aspect of Appalachia, the moonshiner, quickly became the dominate notion of who inhabits the area. In his seminal work on the topic, Appalachia on our mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920, historian Henry D. Shapiro suggests that the related activities of moonshining and feuding had already become a part of the mythology of Appalachian distinctiveness by 1900.[i]

This mythology of Appalachian mountaineers as feudists and moonshiners was fostered through local color literature and fiction about the region. In fact, Shapiro argues that “by the 1890s, moonshining had become so integral an element in the popular conception of mountain life that discussion of the phenomenon became virtually a requirement in descriptive pieces dealing with the region.”[ii] Although the fictional images of feudists and lawless moonshiners battling revenue agents sent to either collect taxes or bust stills were exaggerated, by no means were they entirely untrue. Much like the citizens of Western Pennsylvania, who organized the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 when the federal government first attempted to levy an excise tax on distilled spirits, southern moonshiners, seeing the newly created liquor tax of 1862 as an infringement on their long-practiced right, also began to organize a strong and violent resistance.

In his work, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, professor and author Anthony Harkins examines how the popular image of the colorful, quirky, and out of step with modern society hillbilly of the 1860s was transformed into the savage mountaineer of later years because of this feuding and moonshining reality and image portrayed in the popular press. Harkins argues that although much of the moonshine violence had largely ended by 1890, as modernizing forces continued throughout the region, “the image of mountaineers as lawless ‘moonshiners’ forever battling ‘revenooers’ had become firmly entrenched in the popular imagination and would remain a central component of the hillbilly mythos from that time forward.”[iii]

Harkins’ examination includes the fact that the mountaineer moonshiner of the late-nineteenth century was not only threatened by the federal intrusion into his tradition of converting excess corn into whiskey, but also by other changes that challenged his perception of morality, like the increasing social and political gains of women and blacks.[iv] Just as the image of the mountaineer moonshiner transformed from colorful and quirky to lawless savage at the turn of the century, that image would soon morph into a harmless clown and ultimately into the anti-government rebel and good ‘ole boy. This theme of the mountaineer, hillbilly, and future “good old boy” as the anti-government crusader, traditionalist, and even chauvinist is one which illustrates that the moonshiner, above all else, believes in personal autonomy and federal intrusion upon that autonomy leads to his strong anti-government sentiment.

There is no better way to explore the changes of the moonshiner’s image than to witness them through the on-screen portrayal in motion pictures. Just as local color literature and fiction began to shape the image of Appalachia in the American consciousness in the late nineteenth century, Hollywood movies did much the same, beginning with the moving picture nickelodeon era and into the silent film era of the 1920s. The transformation of the on-screen moonshiner follows the path of lawless savage to harmless clown, and ultimately to the extremely masculine, rebellious, anti-government “good old boy,” such as Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Luke Doolin in Thunder Road. It is this image of the good old boy which will be the focus of this essay.

The moonshine-running, good old boy which emerged with Doolin in 1958’s Thunder Road gave birth to a number of imitators during the next twenty years, all of which seemed to copy Doolin’s characteristics of masculinity, rebellion, and womanizing, but none of which equaled Doolin’s emotional depth, character, or eventual tragedy. In describing the long list of Thunder Road imitations that followed, Harkins suggests that the group were “unambiguous celebrations of male hedonism (almost always at the expense of women), of fighting and beating the corrupt and inept ‘system,’ and of the joys of watching vehicles and buildings destroyed.”[v] Just as Luke Doolin rebelled against and resisted the threats to his personal liberty presented by the federal government and organized crime, the portrayal of good old boys in 1960s and 1970s moonshine films was an ideological reaction to the perceived threats of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements.

Before any examination of these moonshine-running films of the 1960s and 70s, what film critic and author Scott Von Doviak calls the “Hixploitation” genre, it is important for one to understand what came before.[vi] Coal mining, traditional mountain music, poverty, and religion are among the most predominate themes, or subject matter, of Appalachian films, but it is moonshining that has been the most utilized characteristic seen in the numerous films dealing with Appalachia. Because making illegal spirits seems to be an activity of the past and is no longer in the American consciousness as it once was, the topic of moonshining has rarely been addressed or seen in recent films made about Appalachia. There was a time, however, in which nearly every movie set in the southern mountains either made reference to, or entirely focused on, the practice of moonshining.

To suggest, as Von Doviak does, that the moonshiner has been a staple of the movies since the earliest days of Hollywood is truly quite an understatement.[vii] In fact, Professor J.W. Williamson, who has compiled the most extensive Filmography to date of films dealing with Appalachia, hillbillies, and mountaineers, and whose books include Southern Mountaineers in Silent Films and Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies, has suggested that literally hundreds of movies featuring moonshiners were played on one and two-reel nickelodeons and then throughout the silent film era as well.[viii] Along with the very common plot focusing on the moonshiner’s daughter becoming romantically involved with the hero lawman or revenue agent, these earliest representations of moonshiners on film often combined both tribulations – feuding and moonshining – which had done so much to promote the savagely lawless ideal of the Appalachian mountaineer in popular thought.

The earliest known film to depict moonshining, Biograph’s 1904 appropriately titled short, The Moonshiner, was also the first to be produced overtly about mountain people. Harkins explains that it proved to be such a success the company was still advertising it four years later as its biggest money maker and as “the most widely known and most popular film ever made.”[ix] The silent film era in the years after World War I was no different, as hillbilly movies continued to be one of the most popular subjects, continued to be made in great volume, and almost all continued to feature moonshiners and an incredible amount of violence. Harkins suggests that in the nearly 500 movies about mountain folks released through 1929, over 200 on-screen murders took place, 500 assaults with guns, axes, or hand-to-hand combat and 100 attacks against women.[x] The violent and savage aspects of the moonshining hillbilly were not the only stereotypes present in these early films, the hillbilly women, usually the wives of moonshiners, were presented just as savage and violent. Moreover, hillbilly women were frequently presented as gender-benders in male clothing and wild, as if to forewarn the dangers of liberating women.[xi]

As silent moving pictures turned into talking motion pictures during the 1930s, Hollywood’s portrayal of the feuding and moonshining mountaineer as lawless and savage begin to lose credibility due to its overuse and predictability. As a result, there was a drastic reduction in the films being made about the southern mountains, and more importantly, the hillbilly moonshiner image was due for an update. Hollywood’s new hillbilly, as Harkins explains, was “a comically backward yokel,” whose imagery now was a glorification of common folk and a fascination with regional life and culture.[xii] Although the portrayal of the moonshining hillbilly changed in persona during the 1930s, the plots and themes in which he was immersed did not. The savage and violent moonshiner turned comedic and buffoonish, but the same plots of feuds, moonshiner’s daughters, and battles against revenue agents remained. Many of the moonshine movies of this era featured comedic pairs, such as Laurel and Hardy in Them Thar Hills (1934), or even trios, such as the Ritz Brothers in Kentucky Moonshine (1938).

Moving to the mid-century point, as proof that both the lawless, savage moonshiner of the 1920s and the backward, yokel moonshiner of the 1930s had worn out their welcome in the American imagination, even fewer movies about hillbilly moonshiners, and Appalachians in general, were made throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. A number of reasons might be cited for the seeming disappearance of the moonshining hillbilly during this period: As World War II unfolded and America transitioned to postwar changes, patriotic themes and a new definition of masculinity prevailed, just as whole new genres dominated the landscape. The patriotic hillbilly was seen in Sergeant York (1941), but perhaps the new trend in patriotic films presented a particular dilemma for the hillbilly moonshiner, who is anti-government by his very nature. Likewise, the hillbilly, most always now seen as comedic and backward, did not fit the new masculine model of urban and streetwise. On top of this, the hillbilly seemed to drift westward and become cowboyized, as was the case with the number of depictions of Davy Crockett and the other “coonskin cap boys” of the era.[xiii] Finally, the lack of on-screen moonshiners during this era might have been due in some part to political correctness, as a number of left-wing sources had begun denouncing such stereotypes during the 1940s.

In 1958, not only did the drought end for movies which featured the manufacture or sale of moonshine whiskey, but the subject would be forever changed and never represented the same way again with the release of Thunder Road, a film that was produced and written by and starred legendary tough-guy Robert Mitchum. Mitchum, a proclaimed hillbilly himself with a checkered past, also composed and performed two songs for the movie and cast his son, Jim, in the role of younger brother, Robin Doolin. Widely considered one of the most influential of all hillbilly films, Thunder Road is given credit not only as the first film since The Moonshiner in 1904 to provide an insider’s look at the practice and business of moonshining, but also the first to make the connection between bootlegging moonshine and fast, supped-up automobiles – a connection that every NASCAR fan knows because a number of that sport’s early drivers honed their skills in the trade.[xiv]

What the Doolin’s participate in, they do as a traditional family business and a widely accepted practice within their community. Their livelihood is now being threatened from two sides, however – from the government and revenuers who want to shut them down, and from big-city mobsters who want in on their racket. In describing this, Williamson argues that “Thunder Road is not about the dangerous acquisition of illegal cash but about the tragic erosion of liberty as a result of other people’s greed.”[xv] It is in this framing that Luke, a Korean War veteran, represents both the past portrayals of anti-government moonshiners and the future portrayals of masculine, rebellious, and reckless ‘shine-runners. In his dual love interests but unwillingness to settle down, Luke also forecasts a new theme that will continue in the many moonshining flicks following and borrowing from Thunder Road. That theme, as Williamson sees it, is “female-as-enemy,” suggesting also that the two women in Luke’s life are seen as “entrappers and civilizers.”[xvi]

The moonshine movies which followed Thunder Road into the 1960s and 1970s, and the moonshining good old boys represented in them, are clearly direct descendants of Luke Doolin, just as their supped-up hot rods are most assuredly descendants of Doolin’s 1950 Ford Coupe. The movies that appeared over these twenty years are much too numerous, and much too similar, to examine in great detail, therefore, an examination of the two separate decades and the films they offered is in order. As a play on the other sub-genres of film that developed during the same period, such as Sexploitation and Blacksploitation, the two decades collectively have been described as an era of “Hixploitation,” by author and film critic Scott Von Doviak, whose new work is titled Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema. Von Doviak’s premise is that, particularly during the 1970s, the popularity of drive-in theatres throughout the South, but also in other rural areas, helped these similarly-themed regional films gain mass acceptance.[xvii]

Hillbilly movies with portrayals of mountain moonshiners, once again, became easily exploitable during the 1960s. While the moonshining hillbilly image had all but disappeared from the movies during the 1940s and 1950s, it resurfaced in the 1960s in the most incredibly bizarre fashion – used almost entirely as a prop to support either gruesome, campy horror or soft core pornography. Often relying on the standard theme of the moonshiner’s daughter, 1960s hillbilly sexploitation flicks featuring moonshiners were almost as common as were the moonshiner-as-savage silent films of the 1920s and the moonshiner-as-yokel films of the 1930s. In fact, Williamson points out that “the hillbilly milieu as a paradise of unbridled lust is practically an industry standard in much soft-core porn.”[xviii]

Moonshine-themed titles during the 1960s include Common Law Wife (1963), Shotgun Wedding (1963), Moonshine Mountain (1964), The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965), White Lightnin’ Road (1965), Raw Love (1965), Mudhoney (1966), Girls From Thunder Strip (1966), Hell on Wheels (1967), The Road Hustlers (1968), Moonshiner’s Woman (1968), and Sod Sisters (1969). Worthy of note is the fact that The Devil’s Eight (1969), an obvious rip-off of the immensely popular The Dirty Dozen from two years before and starring teen-idol Fabian, was an anti-moonshine movie, featuring a gang of former prisoners out to break up a moonshine ring. Also worthy of note is the fact that Hell on Wheels, starring country singer Marty Robbins and right-wing congressman Bob Dornan, might have been the first major film to make the moonshine-NASCAR connection – something that would be examined with The Last American Hero, the 1973 biopic of Junior Johnson, and Greased Lightning, the 1977 biopic about Wendell Scott.

The 1970s proved to be a return to the Luke Doolin style of moonshine-running good old boy, with most all of these moonshine films imitating Thunder Road to some degree. The themes of fast cars, machismo and womanizing continued, but the graphic nature was toned down from the previous decade. As the decade began, two of the more serious attempts at depicting moonshiners were on display in The Moonshine War, starring Alan Alda, Richard Widmark, and Will Geer, and I Walk the Line, starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld. A period piece set in the waning days of prohibition in Kentucky; The Moonshine War features a moonshiner battling a corrupt revenuer and a gang of bad-guy moonshiners. I Walk the Line is set in 1950s Tennessee, where the familiar plot is revisited as the Sheriff attempts to bust up a moonshiner as well as romance his daughter.

While the two previous 1970s moonshine movies set the tone for a more serious look at moonshining, the ones that would follow in the next few years did more to develop the “good old boy” who, as this essay presumes, is rebelling against the social climate changes which are going on around him – particularly those of women’s liberation. The most classic example of this among the 1970s good old boy moonshine flicks is Bad Georgia Road (1978), which features Molly, a high-society New York girl, traveling to Georgia, along with her obviously gay male assistant, to collect her inheritance from distant relatives. When she gets there, she finds that her inheritance is actually a simple farm and moonshine operation that employs Leroy, whose machismo and cool is a match for Luke Doolin. Molly soon becomes the subject of Leroy’s uppity woman frustration and Leroy, likewise, becomes the subject of Molly’s male dominance fantasy. Before the film ends, Leroy’s masculine social order is finally restored when he virtually rapes Molly and the two come to his business terms.

Almost all of the other good old boy, moonshine-running films of the decade feature similar plot lines, in which a moonshiner’s daughter, or daughters in multiple cases, becomes first independent then the sexual object of the masculine anti-hero, and the moonshine-running good old boy faces an enemy in not just the law, but a corrupt Mr. Big mobster. Those titles include Girls From Thunder Strip (1970), Preacherman (1971), Moonrunners (1974), Hot Summer in Barefoot County (1974), Bootleggers (1974), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), Moonshine County Express (1976), Dixie Dynamite (1976), Thunder and Lightning (1977), and Hooch (1977). Worthy of noting is the fact that White Lightning (1973) and its sequel, Gator (1978), featuring Burt Reynolds as Gator McKluskey are dead-ringers for a more modern Luke Doolin, but they are set in southern swamplands instead of southern mountains. Also noteworthy is the fact that Walking Tall (1973) and its two sequels serve as factual anti-moonshine films, featuring Buford Pusser as the still-busting lawman.

Von Doviak’s premise is undoubtedly correct, but other premises that are offered concerning the mass acceptance of these similarly-themed moonshine-running movies of the 1970s are those of both Harkins and Williamson, who agree that changes in the socio-political landscape, coupled with the regionalism of Appalachia and the South in general, helped the films thrive. Williamson argues that three important factors were threatening the freedom of men in theses later films: the law, the mob, or advanced capital, and uppity women. He further concludes that it was no coincidence that these films proved most profitable from the late sixties through the seventies, during the most recent rise of feminism.[xix]

In describing not just this wave of moonshining, good old boy movies, but also the way in which southerners began to take pride in terms such as redneck and hillbilly, Harkins argues that “this development was part of a general counterreaction to the social upheavals of the Civil Rights movement, counterculture, and women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”[xx] In the case of Luke Doolin it is clearly the outside forces of change brought about by the federal government and organized crime that threatens his autonomy, but in the case of Leroy from Bad Georgia Road, and the other good old boys of the moonshine-running films of the 1970s, it is the outside forces of change brought about by the changing social structure around them.


[i] Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on our Mind: The Southern Mountain and Mountaineers in American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 103-104.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004), 33-34.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 211.

[vi] Scott Von Doviak, Moonshine Movies,, accessed 12-13-05.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] J.W. Williamson, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 124.

[ix] Harkins, Hillbilly, 58.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, 59.

[xii] Ibid, 141.

[xiii] Williamson, Hillbillyland, 90.

[xiv] Ibid, 124.

[xv] Ibid, 126.

[xvi] Ibid, 127.

[xvii] Von Doviak, Moonshine Movies, 12-13-05.

[xviii] Williamson, Hillbillyland, 62

[xix] Ibid, 132.

[xx] Harkins, Hillbilly, 211.