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Smokey and the Bandit (1977)


If I asked you to name the biggest film at the US box office in 1977, you might well guess (correctly) that it was Star Wars. But if I asked you to name the second biggest, you might struggle a little. Was it Close Encounters of the Third Kind ... or maybe the James Bond epic The Spy Who Loved Me? Nope. It was a cross-country car chase comedy called Smokey and the Bandit, a film as divorced from the era of modern blockbuster cinema as its box office rival Star Wars is inextricably linked to it.

In Smokey and the Bandit, Bo Darville, also known as "The Bandit" (Burt Reynolds), and his truck driving pal Cledus (Jerry Reed) take on the job of transporting a lorry load of Coors beer across state lines from Texarkana into Atlanta, Georgia. Two wealthy Texans want the beer for a celebration in Atlanta and are prepared to pay handsomely for it. But Coors beer can't be sold east of the Mississippi, so the Bandit and Cledus need to avoid the law as much as possible. One of them will drive the truck, while the other will act as "blocker" in a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Of course, since he's the star of the movie, it's Burt Reynolds who gets to drive the fancy black sports car, and not the big ass old truck.


Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit
Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit

Along the way, the Bandit picks up a young woman, runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), who is literally standing by the roadside in her wedding dress. The talkative Carrie has ditched her fiancé at the altar after having last minute second thoughts. Just to complicate things slightly, her fiancé is a dimwitted cop (played by Mike Henry), and his father is Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). So Justice senior and Justice junior give pursuit to Carrie, and by extension The Bandit, thus complicating and personalising the cross-country car chase.

As L.P. Hartley wrote, the past is another country, they do things differently there. And Smokey and the Bandit seems as good an illustration of that maxim as any. While it's still possible to appreciate other 1970s blockbusters, like the same year's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Spy Who Loved Me, and of course Star Wars, the appeal of Smokey and the Bandit seems stuck a bit more solidly in 1977.

While Smokey and the Bandit was a huge hit in the US that year, it obviously wasn't the global phenomenon that Star Wars was. And the film serves as a reminder of something that non-American audiences sometimes forget. America is a large and diverse country, with its own idiosyncratic tastes and sub-cultures. And despite its widespread colonization of the world's film and television screens, American product can sometimes seem startlingly, er, American.

And Smokey and the Bandit must be one of the most American films ever made. It's got massive trucks, a fat sheriff, cases of cool beer, a Trans Am, a hero who wears a cowboy hat, and a supporting character called Cledus. Even its premise is based on strange American laws that border on the incomprehensible for the rest of the world.

Of course, urban sophisticates would probably baulk at this. Smokey and the Bandit might be very American, but it's a vision of a very distinct part of America. It's rural, not urban, it's southern not northern, and it's flyover country, not eastern or western. It's also defiantly working class.


Jerry Reed and Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit
Cledus (Jerry Reed) and The Bandit

Smokey and the Bandit is also very much a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds, at least as much as his black Trans Am. It's a showcase for his twinkly-eyed good ol' boy persona, accompanied by his casually worn cowboy hat, that oddly girlish laugh and, since it's the '70s, finished off with an impressive moustache.

Reynolds's Bandit is almost like a blue collar American version of James Bond. He's a cool guy in a cool car, a legend in his own lifetime and a man who is irresistible to women everywhere. And, unlike Bond, he's definitely American. I mean, he even wears a cowboy hat. Better still, he's kind of attainable as a role model in a way that James Bond generally isn't. All you need is a hat, a grin and a Trans Am. And the Trans Am sure ain't no Aston Martin, it's not even a Corvette. It's an affordable car that almost any Joe Schmo can aspire to.

Burt Reynolds was an actor who had plugged away in television for several years, before landing a leading role in John Boorman's wilderness drama Deliverance in 1972. He was tallish, dark and handsome, and did possess a slight, easy charm, and Smokey and the Bandit does give some clues as to how he became such a big box office star at the end of the 1970s. 

As a film star he's probably an acquired taste, as there's a degree of smugness and self-satisfaction about his starring roles that can be off-putting if you're not already fully on board. But while his film roles in this era usually don't display a great deal of acting range, it's indisputable that nobody ever played Burt Reynolds better.

The humour in Smokey and the Bandit is pretty unsubtle and there's a definite chauvinist strain that's sometimes jarring. Field almost manages to make something of her thin, underwritten character, mainly because she and Reynolds have a degree of chemistry together, perhaps not surprising as they began an on-off relationship on this film. Her runaway bride adds an unexpected touch of screwball comedy, but it's distracting just how often the script relies on her bending over in her seat and sticking her butt in Burt's face just to get a laugh. The only female trucker, meanwhile, is called "Little Beaver", while there's also a character called Big Enos and another called Little Enos, and I don't think it's a stretch of the imagination to see that as a deliberate knob gag.


Jackie Gleason talks into a car radio while Burt Reynolds and Sally Field look on
Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) just can't find The Bandit anywhere ...

The film has a jarring mix of acting styles, from underplaying to wild caricatures. It sorely lacks any sort of interesting plot development, and those developments that do take place are scarcely believable. Once we meet Sheriff Justice's son, it strains credibility that Field's character could seriously have been intending to marry such an obvious dimwit.

Jerry Reed, who plays Burt's trucker pal Cledus, also contributed the country and western songs for the film's soundtrack. The most memorable of these is probably "East Bound and Down", even if the lyrics are a little bit obvious in places ("we've got a long way to go and a short time to get there...").

Jackie Gleason, meanwhile, chews every bit of scenery he can get his teeth into as the bombastic sheriff with the unlikely name of Buford T. Justice, while he and Mike Henry, as his not-too-bright son, provide much of the film's unsubtle humour.

The corpulent, redneck sheriff was not an uncommon figure in 1970s films. Another prominent example is Louisiana Sheriff J. W. Pepper, as played by Clifton James in two James Bond films, Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The Bond films also seem to be at least partly responsible for the incompetent cops cliché of the time, as every '70s movie car chase ended with a pile up of US police cars. Bond got into this area early on with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 and was still pursuing it as late as 1985 in A View to a Kill. Guy Hamilton, director of Diamonds Are Forever, had a low opinion of American cars, and gleefully trashed as many as possible in that film and its successor Live and Let Die.

While car chases made for a popular action highlight in late 1960s and early '70s films, as in Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), by the mid-1970s the car chase movie was emerging as a genre in its own right. A film like 1974's Gone in 60 Seconds was unashamedly just one 100 minute long car chase. While Smokey and the Bandit has elements of the road movie (another popular 1970s genre), it's also clearly part of this new sub-genre of the car chase movie. There are cars, motorbikes and trucks, car stunts, vehicles being destroyed, and hordes of wildly incompetent police drivers and traffic cops. And the film's structure is basically just a long chase.

The film's director, Hal Needham, was a former stuntman, and Smokey and the Bandit is exactly what you'd expect from a film directed by a stuntman, foregrounding stunts, action and vehicular destruction over everything else. Burt's Trans Am is, of course, ever present, and survives the various stunts and scrapes remarkably unscathed. The General Motors marketing department must have been delighted by this unrivalled advert for their sports car. And while I'm sure that Smokey and the Bandit did a lot for sales of Coors beer, I'm even more certain that it helped to shift a lot of Trans Ams off GM forecourts.


Sally Field and Burt Reynolds inside car in Smokey and the Bandit
Carrie and The Bandit in his trademark Trans Am

Smokey and the Bandit also draws on the CB radio craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s, its title referencing both The Bandit's call sign and a well known piece of CB radio slang for cops. The Bandit not only uses his radio to communicate with Cledus and other truckers, but is able to use the network of CB users to outwit the cops. This combination of car chase movie and the use of CB radio places Smokey and the Bandit among similar contemporary films of 1977-78, including The Great Smokey Roadblock and Convoy, as well as the odd CB radio movie like Handle with Care (also known as Citizens' Band).

The CB network enables the Bandit to draw on his fellow users to help him outwit the law and to tip him off about police roadblocks. But it also helps his fame to spread, an element that plays into that particularly (although not uniquely) American notion of the outlaw as celebrity. There are even groups of girls waiting for him by the roadside with "Go Bandit!" banners (although you have to wonder, if they can find out where the Bandit will be, why can't the police get there first and arrest him?).

With its outlaw hero and his Bandit moniker, the film has deliberate echoes of the Wild West of American mythology, of robbers and outlaws, pursuing lawmen, and the notion of slipping across state lines to escape the clutches of the law. It's partly about the appeal of sticking two fingers, or one finger for Americans, up at authority. It's also, of course, about the lure of the open road, and its frequent intertwining in American culture with the notion of personal freedom.

This combination of elements, the car chase movie, CB radio, Coors beer and the stardom of Burt Reynolds, make this a film that almost couldn't have been made at any other time. In fact, its time was probably already past when the first sequel appeared in 1980. It's also the moment when 1970s "redneck cinema" moved defiantly into the box office mainstream, even if only for a short time. And Smokey and the Bandit presents a more positive view of the South than is seen in many of its contemporaries. There seems to be an attempt to portray the region as more friendly and inclusive, with the Bandit's many black friends and allies seemingly designed to suggest that it's more harmonious and less racially fractured than before. And, while the heroes are law breakers, something that gives them almost a counter-culture vibe, smuggling some beer to willing buyers could hardly be a more victimless crime.

Smokey and the Bandit is also definitely part of a movie trend towards making deliberate crowd-pleasers. After a difficult decade at home and abroad, the American public was no doubt growing tired of downbeat movies with tragic endings. It wanted to go to the movies to be entertained, and the big successes of 1977 were starting to do that again. That's partly why Smokey and the Bandit was such a huge hit, because it's a movie with barely a thought in its head beyond a general desire that everyone should have a good time.


Jackie Gleason in wrecked police car in Smokey and the Bandit
We'll stop here: One of Smokey and the Bandit's many moments of wanton automotive destruction

Three years later Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason all returned for a sequel Smokey and the Bandit II (released as "Smokey and the Bandit Ride Again" in the UK), in which The Bandit and his pals have to transport an elephant across country.

Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 appeared in 1983, with Gleason returning as Sheriff Buford T. Justice on the trail of the Bandit, this time played by Jerry Reed, while Reynolds only appeared in the briefest of cameos.

The third film seems to have had a torturous conception, and early press reports claimed it would be titled "Smokey Is the Bandit", either with Gleason's Sheriff taking on a cross-country run himself or with Gleason playing both the Sheriff and a new bandit. Supposedly, Jerry Reed was only brought in to shoot new material as The Bandit after negative test screenings of the original version. It's surprisingly difficult to verify the truth about this one but, regardless, the final version of Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 is a poor effort, and it didn't have much hope at the box office without the series' star Burt Reynolds.

Hal Needham later made three TV movies in the early 1990s with Brian Bloom as The Bandit. It also seems likely that the success of Smokey and the Bandit helped the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) get the green light.

Burt Reynolds teamed up with Hal Needham again for several more automotive capers, so much so that he began to seem almost inseparable from the guys 'n' cars genre by the early 1980s. Reynolds had already starred in two car chase movies, White Lightning (1973) and its 1976 follow up Gator, which he also directed. But with Needham he also added not only the first Smokey and the Bandit sequel, but also the stuntman flick Hooper in 1978, racing drama Stroker Ace in 1983 and two Cannonball Run car race comedies, in 1981 and 1983.

Whether Reynolds's career would have continued to prosper in the late 1980s is debatable, but it was certainly adversely affected by an injury he sustained on the set of City Heat (1984), a prohibition era crime film with Clint Eastwood, and the resulting rumours about his health.

Smokey and the Bandit is an amiable but largely mindless entertainment, an undemanding watch that expects nothing from its audience and can probably easily be forgotten within 10 minutes or so of its ending. As a cultural artefact, though, the film is surprisingly interesting. While it's not by any means Burt Reynolds's best film - that's probably John Boorman's survival adventure Deliverance from 1972 - it did become his signature role. The film gives some clues as to why he became such a big box office draw, while also demonstrating why his stardom probably couldn't last in the longer term. It's also a film that had a significant impact on his film career over the next few years, and that impact was ultimately, I think, not all for the good.


Smokey and the Bandit

Year: 1977
Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime
Country: USA
Director: Hal Needham

Cast  Burt Reynolds (The Bandit), Sally Field (Carrie), Jerry Reed (Cledus), Jackie Gleason (Sheriff Buford T. Justice), Mike Henry (Junior), Paul Williams (Little Enos), Pat McCormick (Big Enos).

Screenplay James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, Alan Mandel, story Hal Needham, Robert L. Levy  Producer Mort Engelberg  Cinematography Bobby Byrne  Art director Mark W. Mansbridge  Editors Walter Hannemann, Angelo Ross  Music Bill Justis, Jerry Reed  Special effects Art Brewer

Running time 96 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen  Panavision
Production company Rastar  Distributor Universal Pictures



Comments

  1. Fun and in-depth writeup. I think you may take this movie a bit too seriously though but then you're talking to an unabashed fan here. Full disclosure: I love Smokey and the Bandit. It's just the perfect - admittedly brainless - fun I watch on a regular basis. :) I love the theme song, once heard you won't get it out of your head.

    As always part of the fun of watching old(er) films is that we get a glimpse of a world gone by, something I love. Smokey is actually a throwback to Prohibition times in a way, with two guys running "illegal" booze across state lines. And believe it or not, it is still illegal in a few states to transport liquor across state lines!
    Yes, there are a few questions I can't find an answer for and never will. First, that state line thing. Second, who in their right mind would insist on drinking Coors beer? And have it brought halfway across the country? Why? Never mind.

    As you say the past is a different country and what I like most about the movie is that it is thoroughly un-PC, something I very much appreciate. I hate PC in any form and seeing the new Puritans being "offended" about everything nowadays makes me love old movies even more. Smokey is set in freewheeling times that are unfortunately long gone.

    I agree that Smokey has less of a global appeal because it is firmly rooted in its time and place. It is without a doubt blue collar Americana, there is nothing sophisticated about this. Trucks, Trans Ams, cowboy hats, fat Southern sheriffs...Jackie Gleason steals the show as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, one of my favorite comedic characters ever.

    I really love Burt in this one and it is one of the few times I find Sally Field bearable and attractive. From the 80s on her performances usually made me cringe.

    In the same vein as Smokey is Cannonball Run which you mentioned. Though made in 1981 it is still a 70s movie. Also fun is The Gumball Rally (1976).

    Oh, you forgot to mention Fred. Can't forget Fred.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like to think that taking films too seriously is definitely my trademark.

      I wouldn't have had you down as a fan of this, so I'm amused that you like it so much. It's a very long way from film noir!

      The film-as-time-capsule is one of the things I really like about older films. This is especially true of post-studio era films, because there's less control and more chance of being accidentally revealing about the time and place a film was made, something that probably draws me to the later films.

      I used to like The Cannonball Run as a child, but I'm not sure if I want to revisit it now. I never did get to Cannonball Run II, but then neither did a lot of others it seems.

      I'm afraid that Fred obviously didn't leave much of an impression on me. I had to google him ...

      Delete
    2. "Jackie Gleason steals the show as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, one of my favorite comedic characters ever."

      Abso-freakin'-lutely. Not only does Buford T. Justice steal this movie, he makes it watchable, period. With Justice (who is one of the greatest comic characters ever), this movie is pretty damn good. Without justice, it's just another bad Burt Reynolds vehicle.

      Delete
    3. Yes, this movie is certainly a long way from Noir but I do watch a lot of other genres and decades too. Well, at least up the 90s. I admit I love stupid comedies and action movies.

      The 70s are definitively a must when it comes to films as time capsules. BTW, Cannonball Run 2 is awful.

      On a different note, am I the only one here who is feeling the love for Burt? :)
      J-Dub, bad Burt Reynolds vehicle? This hurts me deeply.

      Delete
    4. If you ever want to write about something that doesn't fit your blog, I'm sure I could find a place for it here ;)

      Delete
    5. Thank you, Jay. I may actually do that at some time.

      Delete
    6. That would be great.

      Delete

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