Film Review: “Lawless” (2012)

“Lawless” (2012).  A period piece riding the tails of “The McCoys and Hatfields” on the (cable) History Channel. A similar blood feud tale set in the prohibition era involving moonshiners in Virginia (probably more West Virginia).

The film was ho-hum, slow, onerous, made poor use of some of the talent (Gary Oldman), didn’t develop many of the characters well and let Guy Pierce overact. I was thinking I should have waited till it came out on HBO.

I was also looking at the location scenery.  The longer I watched, the less the location looked like anywhere in (West) Virginia.  It looked like North Georgia, a place I am very familiar with. So I stuck around for the credits, and sure enough it was filmed in Georgia and the Northeastern city of Clayton, Georgia is mentioned. The film Lawless was mediocre but the subject of moonshine in North Georgia is much more interesting.

In the mid-60s, I lived in Toccoa, Georgia, about an hour’s drive from Clayton.  Much of the state was “Dry” (no ethanol containing beverages sold).  This was an advantageous collusion between the conservative arm of the Baptist Church that considered ethanol to be a tool of the devil, and moonshiners, who made a tidy profit supplying ethanol-containing  beverages to the population, including many of the Baptists. They both combined to insure no referendum was ever brought forth legalizing booze.

The moonshiners maintained stills deep in the dense North Georgia woods, serviced by isolated dirt roads no one else had any business on and would be well advised not to find any. Many of the stills were Rube Goldberg inspired. Some used car radiators seeping lead into the brew, and responsible for some strange musculoskeletal twitching amongst some of the old timers. They were also known to dash a little Red Devil Lye to the mix for some additional curing.

As it happened, my colorful past history includes moonshine issues (but you already knew that). In 1964 and 1965 I was dodging the draft at a small college in Habersham County, North Georgia, one of the several small colleges that collected guys that busted out of normal  schools and needed protection from the draft. The other infamous school that comes to mind was Parsons College in Iowa.

The boy’s dorm at Piedmont College was right next to a large expanse of deep piney North Georgia woods. At night I could hear the moonshiners making their rounds, and occasionally them getting chased by “revenooers”. They dove fast and they drove hard through the dirt roads at night with no headlights. They knew every foot of the woods. Some previous moonshiners became successful NASCAR drivers in the 50s (Junior Johnson).

Naturally, it was necessary for shiners to have vehicles faster than the revenooers, who were pretty much stuck with stock rides. In the late 50s, the shiners vehicle of choice was the Ford sedan with an 85 horsepower flathead V-8 engine easily amenable to souping up with three Stromberg 97 carburetors and a ¾ cam. They then put huge springs and shocks in the rear end to support full trunks of liquid cargo a la “Thunder Road (1958).

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052293/

In the 60s, they ran later model OHV Ford V-8s with huge four-barrel carbs and other modifications. Sewer pipes for exhaust pipes. These beasts would easily outrun any stock police car.

We college kids purchased quart jars of shine anytime. This stuff was extremely potent. I suspect it was at least 95% straight up ethanol and 5% God only knows what else. It was the only brew available to most of the poorer portions of the population. As I recall, a quart jar of typical shine went for about US$00.50, a lot more money then than now. Mixed with orange juice it wasn’t too bad, all other factors considered. I didn’t keep any of it for posterity.

Interestingly, there are still dry counties in Georgia, maintained that way by the same factions in 1964, and you don’t want to go tromping around in those woods either, especially at night. Clayton Georgia is the home of a lot of other strange things including the kid in the tree playing the banjo in “Deliverance” (1972).  He still lives there.

I give “Lawless” two laconic anti-heros out of five. Wait for it to come to cable and see for the accurate location filming.

Rent “Thunder Road” (1958 for an accurate view of moonshining in the old days.

 

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