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‘Lawless’ helps grow Virginia bootlegging trio’s legend

Author Matt Bondurant, at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, says he didn’t know about his family’s bootlegger history until he was a teenager. “I set out to fill in as many of the blanks as I could,” he said of writing his novel.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Author Matt Bondurant, at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, says he didn’t know about his family’s bootlegger history until he was a teenager. “I set out to fill in as many of the blanks as I could,” he said of writing his novel.

Literary scholars will tell you the Romantic Period took place in the late 1700s.

And while that’s certainly true for Europe, in the United States there’s been no more romantic creative period than the 1920s and ’30s, when men, women, and children coped with the tragedy of the Great Depression and confinement of Prohibition by wistfully rooting for gangsters and outlaws portrayed in films pitting booze-slinging Robin Hoods against FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s raid squads.

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Novelist Matt Bondurant’s family has taken its place in gangster lore with the recent release of “Lawless,” an independent film based on the true story of the “Bondurant Boys,” his grandfather Jack and great uncles Howard and Forrest Bondurant, brothers whose moonshine operation was so prolific reporters and federal agents nicknamed Franklin County, Va., where the Bondurants lived, “The Wettest County in the World.” That nickname became the title of Bondurant’s 2008 novel, which ultimately led to the making of the film, which stars Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, and Tom Hardy as Jack, Howard, and Forrest Bondurant, respectively.

Richard Foreman Jr./Weinstein Company

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant in the new movie “Lawless,” based on Matt Bondurant’s book.

“Lawless” is a fast-paced feature, adapted by screenwriter Nick Cave (because Matt Bondurant was busy hammering out another novel), and directed by John Hillcoat, whose previous credits include “The Road” (2009), starring Viggo Mortensen. The new film jumps right into the action, with the Bondurant brothers on a late-night booze delivery in the big city.

Over several years of studying his family’s history for the book, Matt Bondurant learned that Jack, the youngest of the trio, was considered a hothead and a bit immature. Howard, the middle brother, was a brawler, who may have partaken a little too often in the family product, and Forrest was the silent, stoic type — all characterizations that come out in the opening minutes of “Lawless.”

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From the beginning, the film oozes danger and apprehension, as the brothers always seem to be a step away from a deadly encounter with shady cops and federal agents. And the tension is only bolstered by the legend of Forrest Bondurant’s nine lives.

“There was this belief that Forrest was invincible, that he couldn’t die,” Bondurant says. “He had survived brutal attacks in Europe during WWI, in which others died. He always seemed to escape death at home in conflicts arising around his bootlegging. There was the time his throat was cut during a robbery attempt at the family restaurant, and he reportedly got himself to the hospital about 12 miles away. And sure, we know that no one is actually invincible. But he lived in a time where people were desperate for super figures and larger than life characters. And I suspect that’s how his legend grew.”

And where “danger” films often show some form of respite for the protagonists, only Jack Bondurant seeks a normal life throughout most of “Lawless,” in his taste for fine clothes and cars and his romantic pursuit of a strict preacher’s daughter.

That it’s fact-based places “Lawless” in the company of other powerful films about Prohibition, including “The Public Enemy,” a 1931 feature that catapulted Jimmy Cagney to stardom and is credited with being the first movie of the gangster genre. It was followed by a range of other hits, among them the 1959 comedy classic “Some Like It Hot,” in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians in drag, fleeing mobsters after accidentally witnessing a gang hit, and 1984’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” featuring Robert De Niro and James Woods as fledgling gangsters and bootleggers. The movies drive home the point that “regular” people were caught up in the Prohibition Era war between government and criminal.

“Prohibition was so extreme — the idea of the government of the United States and to some degree the people of the United States imposing this moral, almost religious thing on other people — it instantly made about half the population of the US lawbreakers,” said Paul Schneider, chairman of the film and television department at Boston University’s College of Communication. “ [The period] released this incredible almost collusion between the criminal underground and ordinary people. . . . It was a very rich period for film. And I think that’s why we continue to see stories like this one emerge.”

According to Northern Virginia newspaper clippings, the Bondurant Boys were the real deal — labeled as dangerous, ruthless, and the biggest and best bootleggers in their rural community, possessing all the “ingredients” of a classic American “romance” story.

“And that was exactly how it grabbed me the first time I heard about them,” Bondurant said in a recent interview in Boston. “I was probably 16 the first time I heard these stories at a family gathering, and I was in awe, fascinated by what these men were said to have done and the name they made for themselves. You have to understand, in my family, at least with my older relatives, Jack, Howard, and Forrest were not topics of conversation in this light.

“I don’t know if it was so much a matter of shame as in people just thought it was immodest to talk in a way about their exploits that might come across as boastful. So to hear about their bootlegging for the first time was a life-changing experience. It opened the door, you might say, to the mystery of their lives. And I set out to fill in as many of the blanks as I could.”

But there was a limit to the details that Bondurant could dig up in newspaper clips and family records, so he reached a crossroads in his efforts to assemble the Bondurant Boys’ story.

“It would have been great to tell their story in the form of a biography,” Bondurant says. “But the fact is there were too many fine details missing to do that well. And so I decided to write it as a fact-based novel and use my own imagination — based on the facts I’d found — to fill in the blanks.”

Bondurant said that process gave him a sense of creative freedom and may have made the story more fun, more engaging for readers. Bondurant’s readers may not have been thrilled though that in the 11th hour, his publishing house, Scribner, announced that “The Wettest County in the World” would be reissued with a new title, “Lawless.”

“They do these things for marketing purposes,” Bondurant said. “The story, the book remains the same — based on true events. And I think in the end that’s what will be most important to people.”

He also believes that “Lawless,” the movie, for all its violence and danger, helps shed light on one of a handful of major periods in US history in which the government was on the wrong side of the law.

According to old Anti-Saloon League of America yearbooks, there were towns at the start of Prohibition in 1920 that sold or dismantled their jails because they were so convinced that alcohol was the root cause of all crime and without it, there’d be no need for lockups.

The Ku Klux Klan supported Prohibition, says the Journal of Social History. And “The American Mix” reports that religious activists wrote a new English translation of the Bible during Prohibition with all references to alcohol removed.

“So it wasn’t just fascinating to me, but it is the kind of story people tend to love,” Bondurant said. “And that era was one of those rare periods where most people, I think, sided with the outlaws and not the authorities. If you look back at our nation’s history, there is this type of support that arises when the law in question seems unjust — in this case, telling people they weren’t allowed to purchase or sell alcohol. Even FDR said at the end of Prohibition, ‘what America needs now is a drink.’ So the story just needed to be told.”

James Burnett can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @James
Burnett.
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