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Why "The Dukes of Hazzard" is the Greatest Movie Ever Made

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In a recent comment thread, I made mention of the December 5, 2005, movie review of "The Dukes of Hazzard" I wrote at my old weblog, which, frankly, I believe offers insights into the film that many commentators have missed. Accordingly, I am reproducing it here for your edification and observations:

Ordinarily, the subject matter of this weblog is confined to college football, but, since the regular season is over and there is plenty of time before the start of the bowl games, I thought I would shift gears slightly and offer my first on-line movie review, inasmuch as the greatest movie ever made, "The Dukes of Hazzard," is scheduled to be released on D.V.D. tomorrow.

I begin by offering a few quotations, in order to set a proper tone for considering a motion picture whose depth and cultural significance have been undersold substantially:

[I]t is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 28, 1785
When we remember the high expectations held universally by the founders of the American Union for a more perfect order of society, and then consider the state of life in this country today, it is bound to appear to reasonable people that somehow the experiment has proved abortive, and that in some way a great commonwealth has gone wrong.

There are those among us who defend and rejoice in this miscarriage, saying we are more prosperous. They tell us---and we are ready to believe---that collectively we are possessed of enormous wealth and that this in itself is compensation for whatever has been lost. But when we, as individuals, set out to find and enjoy this wealth, it becomes elusive and its goods escape us. We then reflect, no matter how great it may be collectively, if individually we do not profit by it, we have lost by the exchange. This becomes more apparent with the realization that, as its benefits elude us, the labors and pains of its acquisition multiply.

To be caught unwittingly in this unhappy condition is calamitous; but to make obeisance before it, after learning how barren is its rule, is to be eunuched. For those who are Southern farmers this is a particularly bitter fact to consider. We have been taught by Jefferson's struggles with Hamilton, by Calhoun's with Webster, and in the woods at Shiloh or along the ravines of Fort Donelson where the long hunter's rifle spoke defiance to the more accelerated Springfields, that the triumph of industry, commerce, trade, brings misfortune to those who live on the land.

Since 1865 an agrarian Union has been changed into an industrial empire bent on conquest of the earth's goods and ports to sell them in. This means warfare, a struggle over markets, leading, in the end, to actual military conflict between nations. But, in the meantime, the terrific effort to manufacture ammunition---that is, wealth---so that imperialism may prevail, has brought upon the social body a more deadly conflict, one which promises to deprive it, not of life, but of living; take the concept of liberty from the political consciousness; and turn the pursuit of happiness into a nervous running-around which is without the logic, even, of a dog chasing its tail.

Andrew Nelson Lytle, "The Hind Tit," I'll Take My Stand
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands. . . .
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry, "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," Collected Poems 1957-1982

I come to praise "The Dukes of Hazzard," not to bury it.

I begin by offering a word of caution, though. While the following review contains nothing on the order of letting you know that Rosebud was a sled, Bruce Willis was dead, Jaye Davidson was a guy, or everybody on the Orient Express killed the victim (and while you probably would have figured it all out on your own, anyway), I may spoil a surprise or two here or there, so, if you plan to see the movie and want to go into it without preconceived notions, you may want to hold off on reading the rest of this review until afterwards.

Even so, I must implore you: see this movie!

A reviewer writing for Slate missed the point almost---though not quite---entirely. When your review of "The Dukes of Hazzard" mentions Camille Paglia and Harry Crews before it mentions Catherine Bach and John Schneider, you need to go watch "The Remains of the Day" and "Howards End" (which may, in fact, be the same film), or "Chariots of Fire" and "The English Patient" (which may, in fact, be the same film), and just give up on seeing movies actual theatre patrons enjoy.

I am a big fan of Harry Crews's work, but a fellow ought to be sophisticated enough to understand the difference between watching "The Dukes of Hazzard" and reading A Feast of Snakes. Then again (and here is where the Slate reviewer narrowly avoided missing the point altogether), certain aspects of this movie owe more to Harry Crews's canon than to Hal Needham's, as will be made clear in the due course of time.

Ere we arrive at that juncture, though, let me first say a word about the cast. I don't know whether they give an Oscar for casting, but, if they do, a nomination must go to whomever picked the actors for "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Seann William Scott, best known for playing Stifler in the "American Pie" movies, is in his element as the maniacal, fast-driving moonshine runner; his Bo Duke has stepped out of a Lynyrd Skynyrd ballad. In the T.V. series, Luke was the smarter cousin, but he always, and undeservedly, was relegated to a secondary role; in the film, Johnny Knoxville, best known for starring in the most aptly-named show in television history, gave Luke Duke his due---which was long overdue---and provided the most pleasantly surprising performance of any actor I had initially thought miscast in his role since Hugh Jackman in the original "X-Men." (I'd be willing to bet, as well, that Johnny Knoxville did his own stunts.)

Even the bit players were well suited to their roles and some, especially Joe Don Baker as the governor and Lynda Carter as Uncle Jesse's love interest, subtly cemented the omnipresent '70s connection by serving up the stars of "Walking Tall" and "Wonder Woman" in their latter-day incarnations.

The trifecta of casting perfection, though, must go to Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg, Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse, and Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke.

By tackling the role of Jefferson Davis Hogg, Burt Reynolds bookended his career in the Southern car-crash genre as cleanly as Clint Eastwood closed the parenthesis of his Western films as the over-the-hill hired gunman in "Unforgiven." Willie Nelson's aging rebel, Jesse Duke, was the most convincing portrayal by an actor essentially playing himself since Henry Fonda played the grumpy estranged father of Jane Fonda in "On Golden Pond." (No, Uga's appearance in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" does not count as an actor playing himself. In that motion picture, Uga faced the daunting challenge of playing the role of his father and he performed magnificently.)

As for Jessica Simpson, her translation of one of television's most noted female leads to the silver screen confirmed that Nick Lachey has some explaining to do. Not since Elizabeth Hurley in "Bedazzled" has any woman in any motion picture worn more costumes that met with the approval of so many male moviegoers. To find a performer who has had so profound an impact in so little screen time, you would have to go all the way back to Marlon Brando in the opening sequences of "Superman." This is by far the best any blonde named Jessica has looked in a movie this year---which is saying something, considering that the bar was set pretty high by Jessica Alba in "Fantastic Four."

Now, however, we turn to the matter of the film itself.

The beauty of this film lies in its blending of disparate elements. If you were between 10 and 13 years old in the late '70s or early '80s and you were a regular viewer of "The Dukes of Hazzard" on television, every element of the series that you loved as a kid was present.

The Balladeer offered wry commentary over frozen-framed shots of the Duke boys' harrowing exploits. The word "dipstick" was used insultingly instead of automotively. Daisy routinely got her cousins out of trouble using good looks and guile. Most of all, there were the recurring car chases involving wrecked police cruisers, leaps over bridgeless gullies, and trips through barns on two wheels in the world's most politically incorrect Dodge Charger, the General Lee.

However, the motion picture version of "The Dukes of Hazzard" was no mere rehash of the rather dated T.V. show. In fact, the movie poked a fair amount of fun at the series upon which it was based.

When the horn played "Dixie" one too many times, Luke made his annoyance known. The ordinarily unflappable Cooter expressed his exasperation at the fact that the Duke boys never paid him for repairing their car. At one point, Daisy predicted that her cousins were going to get themselves into trouble and that this would necessitate her shaking her behind at someone to get them out of jail. Finally, and most notably, in one of film's funnier scenes, the Confederate battle flag atop the General Lee drew the expected reactions from the factions who battled over the state flag, the current version of which appeared unobtrusively in a Hazzard County courtroom.

Instead of attempting merely to put new tread on old tires, the makers of "The Dukes of Hazzard" used the cinematic medium to good effect, painting a more complete and complex portrait of who the Duke boys would have been, had it not been required that they be toned down for television (especially after the transition from the early filming on location in Covington, Ga., to the subsequent studio shooting in Burbank, Calif.).

The latter-day versions of Bo and Luke are not the blow-dried, prettified characters John Schneider and Tom Wopat brought to life; Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville play scruffy, edgy good ol' boys who ring more true than their television forebears ever did.

Bo and Luke need, but do not receive, a shave and a haircut. They curse, wear concert T-shirts, and smoke a brand of cigarettes that ain't altogether legal, just as we would expect of the Southern rock crowd of the '70s. (I'd be willing to bet that Willie Nelson rolled his own.) Their lineage goes beyond the characters from the T.V. show and traces its descent back to Gator McKluskey, the gritty, defiant crusader Burt Reynolds brought to life in "White Lightning" and "Gator."

Similarly, the film version of Roscoe P. Coltrane is not the chuckling bumbler James Best portrayed, but a corpulent reanimation of Ned Beatty's unscrupulous sheriff from "White Lightning." (It should be noted that, in the early episodes of the series, Roscoe was more corrupt than inept.) A strong strain of Southern gothic, straight out of Larry Brown, if not quite out of Harry Crews, is injected into this raucous romp.

This balance between comedic nods to the original series and authentic additions from an older tradition is struck effectively, if not always flawlessly. (The filmmakers committed a crucial sin of omission when they failed to borrow from a similar scene at the end of "The Blues Brothers" by having the campus police show up at the tail end of the train of law enforcement officers hot on the Duke boys' trail.)

From its hilarious send-up of Atlanta traffic to its faithful recreation of the state seal, the film portrayed the Empire State of the South fairly. The soundtrack was but a Drive By Truckers song shy of being pitch-perfect. Much as the Jackrabbit Slim's scene from "Pulp Fiction" neatly encapsulated John Travolta's career, "The Dukes of Hazzard" borrowed from the best elements of Burt Reynolds's oeuvre, including not only the obvious Gator McKluskey connection, but also liberal dollops of "Smokey and the Bandit," the traditional outtakes during the closing credits, and even the lady cop who is the first law enforcement officer not to be swayed by the sight of the female lead's batted eyelashes and low-cut top, which came straight out of "Cannonball Run."

There is more to "The Dukes of Hazzard" than an extended homage to Burt Reynolds, however. The film version of "The Dukes of Hazzard" did something the television show (at least to the best of my recollection) never did; like any good superhero movie, it told us the origin of the protagonist---in this case, the General Lee.

In the movie, we learn that the St. Andrew's Cross atop the roof of the Duke boys' Dodge Charger was placed there by Confederate re-enactors engaged in an act of defiance against corrupt and power-hungry government officials. Placed in this context, the Dukes' decision to shoot flaming arrows and throw lighted moonshine jars at law enforcement officers represents the most satisfying cinematic display of open resistance to overzealous government intrusion since Wolverine's rampage through the invading federal agents in "X-Men 2."

Indeed, in the entire film, only two official actions by public servants are portrayed favorably---one by the governor, one by a judge---and both are acts of populist justice worthy of Governor Eugene Talmadge at his best. Meanwhile, the Duke boys only are able to save the day with the help of the most politically marginalized conspiracy theorist in town, who wears an armadillo on his head to keep out the mind-control rays supposedly sent by the C.I.A.

The theme of distrust of energetic government, coupled with the notion of fealty to family and locality, is underscored again and again. Bo and Luke Duke, the heroes of the film (who are acknowledged as such explicitly at the motion picture's end), live on a farm. At one point, Bo offers a moving soliloquy in which he expresses his priorities eloquently, letting it be known that it means a great deal to him that he and Luke one day will inherit the family land but emphasizing that his obligation to protect his kin comes first. He does not quote Thomas Jefferson for the propositions that small farmers are the chosen people of God and that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, but the sentiments are exactly the same.

This unvarnished statement of fundamental principles is offered in retort to a Hazzard Countian who has been untrue to his heritage. This native turncoat has sold his soul for filthy lucre, taking money from any source, be it the Coca-Cola Company or Boss Hogg, without regard to any overarching ideal beyond his own aggrandizement. He is more interested in getting backstage at a Celine Dion concert than in raising funds for charity and, when confronted with his own complicity in Boss Hogg's nefarious plot, he runs down his home town, scoffing at it because it has the Boar's Nest, an indigenous watering hole awash in local color, instead of a popular chain restaurant available within five miles of any exit off of the interstate. To his way of thinking, Hazzard County is suited only for a strip mall or a strip mine.

Bo and Luke Duke are what the show's and the film's theme song credit them with being: two modern-day Robin Hoods, battling sinister sheriffs with guile and archery. They want to protect Hazzard County's families and farms, to preserve the bucolic integrity and time-honored folkways of their little postage stamp of native soil. Bo Duke is prepared to fight with his favorite race car driver's pit crew chief over an insult to his cousin Daisy, but he is prepared to forgive his cousin Luke for a dalliance with the girl of Bo's dreams immediately upon Luke's speaking of the words, "I'm sorry."

Popular self-government, responsibility to one's homeland, small-town interdependence, and defiance of authority are among the beliefs the Duke boys champion, placing them squarely in the finest Southern tradition dating back to Thomas Jefferson. Bo and Luke are common men serving the commonweal and having a good time doing it; they are a pair of V.K. Ratliffs engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the invading Snopeses.

Whiskey-distilling rebels against statist oppression have had a tough time of it in (and, temporarily, out of) this country since the 1790s, but the sound of the General Lee's horn blaring "Dixie" as the airborne automobile roars across a canyon is a clarion call to old-school virtues and political self-determination, not unlike the pealing church bell in "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

In 1930, twelve Southerners (led by Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren) published the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand. The filmmakers who gave us "The Dukes of Hazzard" may not have been aware that the release of their motion picture coincided with the 75th anniversary of the publication of I'll Take My Stand, but that happy happenstance serves to illuminate the extent to which this 21st-century movie, like that 20th-century publication, honors 19th-century Southern values and 18th-century American political principles.

Shortly following the theatrical release of "The Dukes of Hazzard," a friend of mine observed that it was the finest film made about our home state since "Deliverance." (Perhaps the scriptwriters had the harrowing classic about an ill-fated canoe trip in mind when they inserted a line into the screenplay about the Duke boys being up a creek without the proper seafaring accoutrements.) "Deliverance," like "The Dukes of Hazzard," featured Burt Reynolds in a prominent role, but the two movies have something else in common.

The earlier film was based on a novel by James Dickey, one of the South's most prominent 20th-century poets. "The Dukes of Hazzard" also owes much to Southern poets, from the Vanderbilt Fugitives to Wendell Berry. The translation of Southern literary themes to the motion picture screen has never been accomplished more honestly, more honorably, or more effectively.

As if that were not enough, near the end of the film, the fictional governor of Georgia exclaimed, "Go 'Dawgs!" and a roomful of Hazzard Countians replied, "Woof! Woof! Woof!" It was at that point that I realized that "The Dukes of Hazzard" was, in fact, the greatest movie ever made.

When the General Assembly convenes next month, we in the Peach State should lobby our state legislators to take a small portion of some rural South Georgia county and designate it as Hazzard County. 160 counties is a nice even number and the symbolic gesture would be worthwhile.

In the meantime, "The Dukes of Hazzard" hits the stores just in time for Christmas. I'm sure the timing was not coincidental. We should take the hint.

Go 'Dawgs!