Among the many reasons why fans of the pithy novelist Elmore Leonard celebrated the wonderful ’90s movies adapted from his books—Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and so on—is the fact that Leonard had been poorly served by Hollywood in previous decades. Consider The Moonshine War, for which Leonard received screen credit as the adapter of his own novel. Whether because of studio interference, weak direction, or other unknown factors, the movie that reached theaters bears little of Leonard’s distinctive stamp. Some of the characterizations are colorful and some of the dialogue is tasty, but otherwise the movie is murky and tepid, unremittingly artificial, and weighed down by colossal miscasting. (Playing the film’s principal Kentucky rednecks are a pair of corn-fed Midwesterners and a pair of urbane New Yorkers.) While The Moonshine War is basically tolerable, not a single frame of the film can be taken seriously.
Set during Prohibition, the convoluted plot begins with federal agent Frank Long (Patrick McGoohan) arriving in Kentucky to visit an old Army buddy, Son Martin (Alan Alda). Son is a successful moonshiner, and Frank reveals an audacious scheme to extort money from Son in exchange for keeping Son’s operation secret from the government. Son, backed by an army of hillbilly goons including the cheerfully corrupt Sheriff Baylor (Will Geer), refuses Frank’s overture. Then Frank calls in the heavy artillery—a psychotic former dentist named Dr. Taulbee (Richard Widmark), who travels with a trigger-happy sidekick. Frank wages war against Son’s people until tragedies reveal to Frank that he’s gone too far. Directed without any comprehension or flair by journeyman Richard Quine, The Moonshine War is as hard to follow as it is to believe. For the first hour of the movie, it’s unclear whether Frank is the hero or the villain, and because he never clearly articulates his agenda to anyone, it’s hard to shake the sense that maybe he’s running some elaborate sting on behalf of the government. The movie’s buttery-soft Metrocolor look is a problem, too, since bright lighting and eye-popping colors make most of the film’s scenes feel as sprightly as musical numbers. Together, the problems of look and tone make it difficult to discern whether The Moonshine War is supposed to be a comedy or a drama or both.
Yet it’s bad casting that ultimately dooms The Moonshine War. McGoohan, with his crisp diction and snobbish demeanor, is absurdly out of place in every single scene, to say nothing of the fact that he seems cold and cruel. Alda, such a fine interpreter of the Sensitive American Man, does his best to sell an illusion of illiteracy and primal emotion, but he, too, is not where he belongs. Widmark fares slightly better as a smiling psycho, perhaps because he played versions of the same role for decades, and Geer seems perfectly at home chugging white lightning from Mason jars and spewing down-home aphorisms. It’s also worth noting the random folks who play small roles, including Harry Carey Jr., Teri Garr, Bo Hopkins, John Schuck, Tom Skerritt, and jazz singer Joe Williams.
The Moonshine War: FUNKY