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By Ed Driscoll · December 24, 2004 02:19 PM · Hollywood, Interrupted

Talk about a tempest in a teacup (that's had a shot of Southern Comfort poured in it). I was clicking through the Internet Movie Database, when I came across this thread, which begins with an African-American moviegoer absolutely unloading on the upcoming remake of The Dukes of Hazzard.

Like all recent Hollywood big screen remakes of '70s TV shows, the finished product will of course, be somewhere between mediocre and craptacular, and quickly forgotten. But as the readers of the IMDB illustrated, adapting the Dukes presents a special challenge to its filmmakers, the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription may be required):

It's hard to imagine "Dukes" without the General Lee. One survey of nearly 10,000 car enthusiasts by Hagerty Insurance, a Traverse City, Mich., specialist in the car-collector market, ranks it No. 1 in popularity, besting the 1968 Ford Mustang driven by Steve McQueen in "Bullitt," the Batmobile and James Bond's Aston Martin DB5.

Star of the new Dukes of Hazzard, the General Lee

The Internet has sites devoted to the General Lee, and the latest "Dukes of Hazzard" videogame, released in October, was titled "Return of the General Lee." Separately, DaimlerChrysler plans to revive the Charger nameplate with a new model next year.

Despite the car's enduring popularity, Warner Bros. executives were concerned about it -- or more specifically, about the giant Confederate flag painted on the roof of the Dukes' Dodge, a person involved with the film's production said. Some studio executives were afraid that a lot of potential viewers would see it as nostalgia for the old segregationist South.

The filmmakers' dilemma about how to handle the car shows the pitfalls of Hollywood's penchant for turning beloved TV shows into films -- something the industry has done regularly in recent years, from "S.W.A.T." in 2003 to this year's "Starsky & Hutch." A few decades can turn a joke into something dated and offensive. But studios keep dredging up the old shows, and must tread a line between offending modern viewers and alienating the old fan base by tweaking the old show too much.

In the case of "Hazzard," the show was wildly popular: No. 1 in its time slot for six of seven seasons, beginning in 1979. "I don't remember any problems about the car," says Alan Shayne, then the head of Warner Bros. TV. "It was a spoof." Licensed merchandise connected to the General Lee generated more than $100 million in retail sales. But in the 19 years since the series was canceled, battles over the Confederate flag have grown more bitter: Georgia debated dropping the "stars and bars" insignia from its state flag for years before finally doing so in 2003. Recently, a Kentucky teenager sued her school district for barring her from a prom because she was wearing a dress styled as a Confederate battle flag.

Youth Appeal

The filmmakers didn't want to alienate any segment of the younger audience they sought for this major summer release. The movie, to come out next summer, stars three actors popular with teens and twentysomethings: Seann William Scott (of the "American Pie" films and "The Rundown"), Johnny Knoxville (one of the creators and host of the "Jackass" TV series and movie), plus MTV celebrity and publicity-swamped singer Jessica Simpson in her feature-film debut. The movie's Southern pedigree will get a boost from cast members Burt Reynolds and Willie Nelson.

The filmmakers fretted they'd lose the show's spirit and anger old fans by ditching the flag and the car's name (or the horn, which honks "Dixie"). So they struck a compromise with the studio: Show the flag, but include scenes where it's derided as an inappropriate symbol of the dark past, the person involved in the film said.

In the movie, a mechanic paints the flag on the roof of the car when it's being refurbished. A draft of the film's script has the Duke cousins, unaware of the flag's presence, trying to figure out why they're sometimes jeered, at other times cheered as they drive around. (The final release may vary, since scripts are subject to change during shooting, which is under way.)

Eventually, the Dukes pull into a college town and meet a group of African-American students. When Bo Duke asks them for directions, they stare in disbelief at the car. One of them asks, "Is this a joke? Some kind of reality show?" Bo doesn't understand why they're upset, and replies he thinks the flag is "cool." He explains that his friend Cooter, "a Civil War buff," repaired the car and painted on the flag.

It takes the savvier Luke to size up the situation and explain to Bo that some people find the flag "offensive... a symbol of slavery." Bo protests, "I don't want to oppress anybody," and his cousin affirms this. That's apparently enough to persuade the African-American students Bo is not a bigot. "No sweat," says a student, who lets him park the car.

A representative for Warner Bros. said the filmmakers intend to feature the Confederate flag on the Dodge Charger in a context that is "tongue in cheek," but added that studio executives weren't available for further comment.

No word yet if Howard Dean will have a cameo.

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