dir. Richard Compton
"If the lord was going to give the world an enema, right here is where he'd stick the hose."
The character actor's fear of being typecast is so pronounced that it has fueled drug addiction, criminality and other such hilarity among this not so vaunted group. These actors must constantly strive to reinvent themselves lest they lose their lives playing the same character ad infinitum in a gin soaked haze. Particularly susceptible to typecasting is the TV actor. How can a sitcom actor be successful in a thriller, for instance, when the audience wants nothing more than to erupt in paroxysms of Pavlovian laughter when said actor finds himself in another wacky, cliched situation, or spouts whatever hackneyed catchphrase his character has become famous for? Of course, recent years have produced a slew of quality television shows in which actors have been able to display their full range and depth. In the sixties, however, this was not the case. Unashamedly appealing to the lowest common denominator, these shows gave actors, if nothing else, a steady pay check. One notable typecast victim from this period was Max Baer Jr. (referred to henceforth by his God given name, Jethro Bodine).
Eager to escape the shackles of the lovably dimwitted hillbilly type that made him famous, Jethro Bodine decided to write and produce his own damn movie. His desire to make his own picture was also due to the fact that he couldn't find any work in the rapidly changing environment of the New Hollywood of the seventies. The realistic thrillers, sophisticated sex comedies, existential road pictures, revisionist westerns, and racially themed movies of this period simply did not have any place for an actor of Jethro Bodine's standing -- or so it seemed. Determined to show off his range and prove his worth as an actor, Jethro Bodine would helm a movie designed to give his fellow actors and himself the ability to perform the range of emotions generally reserved for junkies and manic-depressives. "You wanna see actin'? I'm gonna act the shit out of this." Thus was born Macon County Line, a low budget drive-in feature that would become an unexpected hit.
Although part of a larger rednexploitation trend, including Walking Tall, White Lightning, and Thunder and Lightning; Macon County Line is quite the odd duck in this group of films. Uncommon for a low budget seventies exploitation flick, this movie is a period piece; albeit of a recent period. It can be unnecessarily costly to fill a film with period detail, but Jethro Bodine was interested in writing not just an interesting story, but one of a certain time and place: Louisiana in the fifties. The setting here is vitally important in defining this movie. Luckily, the rural locale of this film necessitated that the only period artifacts necessary would be the costumes and a few cars.
Throughout the course of the flick, we follow three separate groups: Chris (Alan Vint) and Wayne Dixon (Jesse Vint) - two northern rough and tumble brothers having their last hurrah before joining the military; Jethro Bodine's character, Deputy Reed Morgan - a traditional (i.e. racist) southern small town lawman who will become a relic of the past; and Lon (Timothy Scott) and Elisha (James Gammon) - two sadistic murderers in the middle of a road trip/crime spree. Oh what times they'll have when their worlds collide.
Early on, Macon County Line takes the form of a high energy comedic road movie. As the Dixon boys make their way across the country; they bang hookers, skip out on diner bills, toy with local law enforcement and pick up an underage female hitchhiker, Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) -- just good old fashioned American fun. After stopping at a run down service station to fix their car, they run afoul of Deputy Reed. You see, this is a good old fashioned town and the folk here just don't cotton to the sorts of shenanigans that some no good out of towner city folk might cause. No sir, they don't like it one bit. Luckily, ol' Reed sets the Dixon boys straight when he let's them know what's what. It seems that they best be on their way if they know what's good for them. When the Dixons' car dies on the road they decide to find shelter in a nearby barn and stay for the night. Problem is, their car dies right outside of Reed's humble abode.
The Reed story-line has all the folksy charm of an "Andy Griffith Show" episode. Reed spends his time romancing his wife, buying a gun for his ten year old son, Luke (Leif Garrett -- yes that Leif Garrett), and explaining the virtues of segregation to said son -- just good old fashioned American fun. Although the encounter with the Dixon boys ruffled a few of his feathers, it wasn't enough to bring Reed down. You see, he is about to pick up his son from military school so as to bring him hunting. Ain't nothing gonna bring him down -- for now.
In the meantime, the Lon and Elisha storyline has the feel of a suspenseful thriller. These boys are making their way across the country a-robbin' and a-murderin' -- just good old fashioned American fun. This plot-line is the most enigmatic. Aside from a quick flashback of a police beating of Lon, we know next to nothing of these two men. They are less characters than forces of nature, which is unfortunate for Reed's poor wife, Carol (Joan Blackman), who meets an untimely end at the hands of these two thugs.
Now all of the worlds and genres collide. Assuming the Dixon boys, whose car is parked outside of his home, are responsible for the death of his wife, Reed goes apeshit in his attempt to hunt down and kill these fellows. Taking on the feel of a slasher film, the last half hour of this movie is a tense cat and mouse game between the cold-blooded revenge-seeking psychopathic Reed and his clueless prey. And before one has a chance to take it all in, the film climaxes in a brutal and shocking scene of violence.
Who would have known that Jethro Bodine could co-write and produce such an entertaining movie? Not that there weren't hints earlier on of what was to come. There was the storyline on "The Beverly Hillbillies", after all, in which he became a movie producer because he met the qualifications of having both a sixth grade education and an uncle who owned a movie studio. But still, who knew?
As is evidenced by my description of the movie, Macon County Line is quite unstable, tone-wise. It brings to mind such diverse movies as Two Lane Blacktop, American Graffiti, My Cousin Vinny, Walking Tall, and Friday the 13th. That such a seemingly unmarketable film would become a smash hit is a testament to the state of the film industry in the seventies. This was an era in which audiences were much more willing to accept wild experimentation in even the most mainstream fare. I have always been fascinated by movies that manage to effortlessly shift tone and genre midstream. Although usually the result of equal parts unfocused filmmaking, massive amounts of drugs, and dicking around; the tone/genre shifts in this movie are quite purposeful.
More than anything, this movie depicts a changing of the guard. Although the one race related scene in this movie is brief, it is important in understanding Macon County Line. When he witnesses Luke's cordiality toward a few black friends, Reed quietly fumes. Later during their car trip, Reed explains to his son, in the most dulcet tones, that the commingling of races is against the order of things. The impressionable Luke, although confused at first by his papa's request not to associate with the "colored boys", eventually acquiesces to his all-knowing father. It is one of the most quietly devastating scenes put to film. Reed's actions here are far more chilling than the crazed rantings of an obviously psychopathic character such as Jessie Lee Kane.
This movie exposes the crazed racism, paranoia and brutality lurking beneath the thin veneer of good old fashioned "American Values", specifically in the Jim Crow South of the fifties. Scratch the surface of an Andy Taylor and you'll find a Bull Connor. In its depiction of vigilante justice gone horribly wrong, Macon County Line also skewers the machismo of the western myth. After his wife is murdered, the traditional Reed is thrust into a world he doesn't understand and thrashes out at the young, rebellious, out of town "others" that he assumes must be responsible. It is a last ditch effort to preserve a way of life. For the Reeds of the world, however, everything is about to come crashing down.