Review: The Moonshine War (1970)

>> Monday, April 7, 2008

USA/C-100m./Dir: Richard Quine/Wr: Elmore Leonard/Cast: Patrick McGoohan (Frank Long), Alan Alda (John W. “Son” Martin), Richard Widmark (Dr. Emmett Taulbee), Lee Hazlewood (Dual Metters), Melodie Johnson (Lizann Simpson), Will Geer (Sheriff Baylor), Joe Williams (Aaron)

It seems that there is an unwritten rule that moonshine movies are nearly always disappointing. Although the setting promises plenty of pie-eyed folksy fun, the characters tend to spend more time talking about whiskey than actually drinking it. The Moonshine War is, alas, no exception. Despite the promise of an Elmore Leonard script, from one of the author's own novels, the picture is a pretty flat brew.

Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan stars as Frank Long, a crooked Prohibition agent who goes sniffing after a large stash of moonshine that his hillbilly army buddy, Son Martin (Alan Alda), put away to sell after Repeal. Long isn’t interested in arresting Son Martin and his firewater-brewing neighbors. He wants to trick Martin out of the stuff in order to sell it himself. When Martin fails to fall for Long’s tricks, the Prohibition agent elicits the help of a deranged dentist (Richard Widmark) and his psychotic sidekick (Lee Hazlewood) to provide a little muscle. Unfortunately, Long’s recruits have their own plans for the whiskey--plans that threaten to leave Long high and dry.

Elmore Leonard’s script contains some intriguingly lurid touches and some unusual, multifaceted characters. In more competent hands, The Moonshine War could have been a bizarre little psychodrama, dripping with filth, alcohol, and dark comedy. Unfortunately, Richard Quine’s direction is casual to the point of being drowsy. He showed more visual flair in the Columbo episodes that he produced around the same time.

The story is also undone through careless casting. Both McGoohan and Alda are talented, likable actors; but neither is capable of producing a credible Southern accident. McGoohan compensates by croaking most of his dialogue, while Alda’s drawl fluctuates from nonexistent to cartoonish. Most of the rest of the actors sleepwalk through their performances; but thankfully, Richard Widmark and Lee Hazlewood bring some welcome zest to the film with their spirited portrayals of a couple of laid-back psychotics.

All in all, The Moonshine War is a missed opportunity. With the elements available, it could have been the Touch of Evil of moonshine movies. Unfortunately, the finished film is simply mediocre drive-in fair--the kind of flick with just enough explosions and lewd content with which to cobble together a good trailer.

Drinks Consumed--Moonshine

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech and staggering

Potent Quotables--LONG: I want you to tell Son Martin somethin’ for me. Tell him I’ve commenced bustin’ stills an’ I’m gonna go on bustin’ them until he hands over his whiskey. You just spread the word, mister, you an’ your moonshinin’ neighbors. You go and have a talk to Son Martin.

Video Availability--The Moonshine War has never been released on video, but Yammering Magpie Cinema has a collector's copy available on DVD. The DVD is letterboxed and the video quality is quite nice. Yammering Magpie’s site ranks the video quality a “C," but that refers to their initial pan & scan release of the title. They have since upgraded the video, and I'd rate the new release an A-. The picture is a little softer than standard DVDs. It's closer to laserdisc quality. However, it's framed properly, free of speckles, and it may be the only way you’ll ever see this rarely screened flick.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Burt Reynolds runs moonshine in the okay actioner White Lightning (1973).

Moonshine War - Movie Poster - 11 x 17


gpsutter April 8, 2008 at 8:27 AM  


Great work! I run and linked to you today. I just spoke to Elmore and he thinks your mission statment is hilarious.

Thought you might like this:

Patrick McGoohan came up to him on the set of The Moonshine War and said “What’s it like standing there hearing your words all fucked up.”

garv April 8, 2008 at 9:51 PM  


Thanks for the link and for sharing the Patrick McGoohan story. I also owe you thanks for posting my review and mission statement on It strikes me as surreal that Mr. Leonard has read a snippet of my writing. I'm a big fan of his work, especially the Western novels.


Bill October 26, 2010 at 1:18 AM  


garv October 26, 2010 at 10:28 PM  

I never had a problem ordering from Yammering Magpie. However, their site has since disappeared, so I have a feeling their business is no more.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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