A hard-driving product of the mid-’70s craze for movies about moonshine peddlers, Moonrunners has interesting connections to popular culture that preceded and followed the film’s release. Costar James Mitchum, the son of legendary Hollywood actor Robert Mitchum, appeared with his dad in the 1958 moonshine-themed B-movie Thunder Road, so there’s a minor passing-of-the-torch element to Moonrunners. More significant is the picture’s legacy, because Moonrunners writer-producer Gy Waldron recycled many of the film’s elements when he created the hit rednecks-running-wild TV series The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985). Although Moonrunners doesn’t have the big-budget polish of The Dukes of Hazzard, the movie epitomizes the good-ole-boys irreverence that made the series popular.
Set in Georgia, Moonrunners follows the adventures of cousins Bobby Lee Hagg (Kiel Martin) and Grady Hagg (Mitchum). Both drive cars for their uncle, white-lightning manufacturer Jesse Hagg (Arthur Hunnicut). The Hagg boys get into hassles with corrupt cops and with Uncle Jesse’s main competitor, Jake Rainey (George Ellis), a varmint determined to get a monopoly on his county’s illegal-liquor trade. The Hagg boys also enjoy brawling, chasing women, gambling, and participating in stock-car races. While the flick’s plotting is perfunctory at best, the style is fairly appealing. Country singer Waylon Jennings narrates (he served the same role on The Dukes of Hazzard), performing tunes and providing cornpone commentary, though he never appears on camera. Every once in a while, the synthesis between Jennings’ rascally delivery and Waldron’s playful language feels just about perfect, as when Jennings’ narration introduces a certain corrupt sheriff, whose name was repurposed for the series: Roscoe P. Coltrane. “After a career of being honest,” Jennings explains, “Roscoe was gonna retire on a bad case of hemorrhoids and $643 in the Shiloh County Bank.”
Not everything in the picture is quite that lowbrow. For instance, the best scene involves a police chief explaining to a federal officer the county’s normal procedure for arresting and processing Beauregard, a mule used for hauling materials to and from Uncle Jesse’s still. In vignettes like that one, Waldron conveys a fully imagined subculture. (Similarly, it’s hard to argue with the character names “Cooter” and “Zeebo.”) Looking and sounding very much like a Roger Corman production, Moonrunners is rough around the edges, with inconsistent acting and jumpy editing, though Kiel’s hyped-up persona and Mitchum’s laconic nature complement each other well. Better still, by the time people start shooting dynamite-tipped arrows, Waldron hits the sweet spot for this particular subgenre.