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Producer Martin Ransohoff's The Moonshine War was a big success with the audiences I saw it with in 1970. The way they laughed at the jokes and fell in with the story, you'd have thought the movie would become a classic. We saw it as a return to Bonnie & Clyde territory, only with a lighter touch and more humorous characters. Audiences liked its ending so much that they applauded. I saw it at least twice, and once double-billed with Kelly's Heroes. Forty-five years later the film is more or less forgotten, and its critical approval quotient is less than zero. Now that I've become a fan of writer Elmore Leonard, I looked forward to seeing it again. It stars the great Patrick McGoohan, playing against a gallery of oddball performances.
Now that the picture is again available on the new Warner Archive disc, I can see its problems. Director Richard Quine seems out of his element filming a movie about hillbillies, after an earlier career doing polished pictures with glamorous stars -- Strangers when We Meet, How to Murder Your Wife. But I've always like the film's mix of crazy characters, and admired Elmore Leonard's nearly perfect story construction, with its promise of gangster-film action and its surprise ending.
It's 1932 in a remote but peaceful part of Kentucky hit hard by the Depression. Impoverished farmer John W. Son Martin (Alan Alda) and his partner Aaron (Joe Williams) are determined to hold out until Election Day. They've hidden hundreds of barrels of finely aged illegal moonshine. If Roosevelt is elected and Prohibition repealed, the cache of booze will be legal and ready to sell; Son Martin will be able to marry his sweetheart Lizann (Melodie Johnson). Unfortunately, Son Martin's old army buddy Frank Long (Patrick McGoohan), now a Federal Revenue Agent, tries to horn in on the deal. When Son Martin refuses to listen, Long brings in the sleazy bootlegger Dr. Emmett Taulbee (Richard Widmark), an ex- dentist who habitually raped his patients. Taulbee sometimes refers to his pea-brained maul Miley Mitchell, as "Lovey Tit" (Suzanne Zenor). The slow-witted, crazy Dual Metters (songwriter and recording artist Lee Hazlewood) is Taulbee's gunman. Son Martin still refuses to give in to these fake businessmen, and his envious neighbors won't help chase them away. Against Frank Long's frantic protests, Doc Taulbee imports a handful of killers with machine guns. His strategy: apply pressure on the neighbors until Son Martin gives in.
The Moonshine War has two things going for it: Elmore Leonard's funny and suspenseful story, and its clutch of goofy characters. For me the show builds its drama perfectly. One crooked opportunist fails to fleece Son Martin, pulls in a bigger crook, who in turn enlists a small army to get the job done. The foolish opportunist then attempts to change sides. Elmore Leonard assembles a marvelously absurd gallery of hicks. Patrick McGoohan's Frank Long is fun because he's a blowhard, and his attempts to fool Son Martin with lies and promises go nowhere. I like the way McGoohan plays him, speaking in a weird growl that sounds as if he's trying to talk without a tongue, or has a ping-pong ball stuck in his throat. The cowardly Long worries and stammers and when drunk can't even sit up straight, but we know he's the one to watch. He carries with him a special 'helper' in a heavy suitcase, a Browning Automatic Rifle that he calls "Old Sweetheart". The gun is kept out of sight, but we know it will eventually come into play.
With his big smile and sick laugh Richard Widmark's Taulbee is a greedy old pervert, plain and simple. Despite his 'friendly' patter he's as nasty as they come, a hayseed Tommy Udo who lets others do the shootin'. Finally showing his age, Widmark has a fine time chortling and hamming up his part.
These clowns need a straight man, and Alan Alda's dour Son Martin is a humorless sort that spends the entire movie watching his enemies multiply and his friends desert him. Alda is not ideal casting. His iffy performance skews the movie because we're now overly aware of his later screen persona -- we wince at his Kentucky drawl and slack-faced stare, the same way we resist Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandit in Virginia City. Not having any preconceptions when I first saw this show, I personally have no problem with Alda. 2
I also still like the supporting cast. Lee Hazlewood sounds great singing with Nancy Sinatra, but he didn't win an acting career. His moronic killer Dual Metter sulks like a whipped dog when he screws up, making him an engagingly odd sidekick for Doc Taulbee. If played a little less broadly he'd certainly qualify as a Tarantino character. One 'comedy' scene that works is when Dual Metter forces a young couple to strip in the middle of a diner, just for the fun of it. Taulbee eggs him on: "We might as well see the whole show." The girl in question just happens to be a young Teri Garr, and her squeamish reactions are priceless. That twisted situation is mirrored by another scene that hasn't aged well: to force Son Martin's hand, Taulbee and Dual threaten to lynch Aaron. The black farmer is trussed up in his underwear while the villains exchange racist remarks. It's supposed to be funny, in the same way that Quentin Tarantino now makes us nervous by skating along the edge of taboo taste. In 1970 we apparently thought the scene funny, but in 2014 it gives offense. 1
Director Quine doesn't leave much room for the other supporting players. Suzanne Zenor's Miley is in for decoration duty, playing dumb and tolerating Taulbee's obscene remarks. In her best bit she licks an ice cream cone in a way that tells Son Martin that he has a date for the afternoon. Melodie Johnson's Lizann has a minimum amount of screen time but does get a good moment with McGoohan, when she offers herself to save Son Martin's life. Will Geer is the cranky old sheriff who likes his 'shine, and his deputy is John Schuck, who was currently getting laughs in M*A*S*H. Schuck's fellow Altman cohort Tom Skerritt is present as well, contributing snarky comments from the sidelines. When the locals turn out as spectators for a gangland shootout, Skerritt's cracker sarcastically rallies them to Son Martin's defense, and nobody moves. His comeback is sarcastic: "Look at that stampede." Yet another sure-shot moonshiner is played by Bo Hopkins, at the time just getting noticed for his part in The Wild Bunch.
It's pretty easy to knock The Moonshine War. Director Quine sometimes seems to be copying scenes from Bonnie and Clyde. The California locations are not a good match for Kentucky, and the production overall reminds us of a TV movie. The cinematography seems rushed; in one shot two characters are practically side-by-side, yet one of them is out of focus. The costumes and sets are okay, but much of the show looks cheap. Modern country songs with electric instruments crop up on the soundtrack.
What The Moonshine War has that can't be denied is an almost perfect storyline. Elmore Leonard was quoted as saying that once a writer has a beginning and ending, everything else will fall into place. The final act is flawless. Doc Taulbee has Son Martin pinned down in his cabin. Instead of helping, the whole county watches the show from higher up on the hill. A game of threats and hostage-taking is just getting underway when Frank Long suddenly shows up, hung-over but determined to turn defeat into victory. And he's brought "Old Sweetheart" with him.
The surprise ending is what made audiences for The Moonshine War applaud, so I won't get into it. But I'll always remember Patrick McGoohan's face, staring in disbelief as he sits exhausted on a water trough with his big gun by his side, as a loud Roy Orbison song "It Takes All Kinds of People" rises on the soundtrack. Although audiences liked it, the film didn't launch Elmore Leonard as a screenwriter. Combined with his flop The Big Bounce from the previous year, the author's marketability in Hollywood wasn't helped much. But his fans can see and appreciate his masterly touch.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Moonshine War is widescreen-enhanced yet not a particularly good transfer. The colors are muted as if the negative had faded, the image is soft and contrast is a bit light. I don't expect this from the WAC so maybe there are issues with the elements. It's a shame in this case, as a more attractive picture would draw attention from some of the other critical complaints. 3
The sound is also okay but not outstanding. Hank Williams Jr. sings the opening "Ballad of Son Martin," over the opening credits. I can heartily recommend this hillbilly gangster saga to fans of the actors (excepting Alan Alda, perhaps) and especially to followers of Elmore Leonard. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Moonshine War rates:
1. If it weren't for the backwoods location, The Moonshine War might be a perfect Tarantino project... the stripping-at-gunpoint scene in the diner seems written for him.
2. I wasn't pleased with Alda a couple of years later. I spotted him on line to see a movie when I was an usher in Westood, and told him how much I liked him in The Moonshine War. This was just before his TV debut in M*A*S*H. Alda gave me the most contemptuous look I can remember getting from an actor -- maybe he thought I was being facetious.
Here's a link to the film's intolerably fake featurette Making Of the Moonshine War, with its phony 'Beverly Hillbillies' guy pretending the movie is being shot in Kentucky instead of Stockton, California. It's insulting. I have nothing to do with it and yet I feel like apologizing.
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T'was Ever Thus.