Drivers’ Cinema: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
The late, and often times great, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham guided 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit to become the second highest grossing film of the year, just a bit behind a little known film by the name of Star Wars. This event started a partnership with Burt Reynolds (at the time the biggest movie star in the world) that spanned five films, including Hooper, and The Cannonball Run. Needham and Reynolds also made sequels to Smokey and the Bandit, and The Cannonball Run, but while not nearly as good as the originals, who could blame them for going back to the well and trying again?
Smokey and the Bandit starts off in Georgia where Big Enos (Pat McCormick) & Little Enos (Paul Williams), two big shots who wear absurd matching blue cowboy suits and hats (that would surely get them lynched in many parts of the south these days) hire a legendary, smooth-talking drifter called “the Bandit” (Burt Reynolds) to drive to Texas, and collect a trailer full of bootlegged Coors beer for $80,000. Oh! And it must be done within twenty-eight hours…or fail and receive nothing. Bandit accepts the bet and recruits Cletus AKA The Snowman (Jerry Reed) and his Basset Hound partner to drive the truck while Bandit drives the ‘blocker’ car, so he can run interference and turn attention away from the Snowman’s truck and its illegal cargo of Coors beer (unavailable at the time in Georgia).
For his steed, Bandit selects a black 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Everything begins smoothly with the pair safely arriving in Texas to load their cargo; however, soon after, the Bandit, being the gentleman and lady’s man he is, cannot help but pick up a cute runaway bride, Carrie (Sally Field). By picking up Carrie, Bandit becomes Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and his simple-minded son Junior’s (Mike Henry) target, who was Carrie’s fiancé. Humiliated by the Bandit, the Sheriff and his son give chase throughout the rest of the film.
Smokey and the Bandit, besides being a box office hit, and further solidifying Burt Reynold’s leading man status, also made a star out of the Pontiac Trans-Am. Trans Am sales exploded from 68,745 in 1977 to 93,341 a year later. Apparently a lot of people wanted a car with a fiery bird on the hood, or wanted to pretend to be the Bandit. The theme music, “East Bound and Down” was sung and co-written by co-star Reed, and became a huge hit in itself. He also wrote and performed the song for the opening credit sequence, entitled “The Legend”, which tells of some of The Bandit’s adventures. Not only that, but the film was also nominated for a high honor, an Academy Award…for Best Film Editing. However, I’m not sure what Academy members were thinking that year, because I’ve never seen a film so full of continuity errors. Doors are opened, then closed, then reopened and knocked off by a passing car. Hats are on, then off, and then on again. No wonder Junior acts as the Sherriff’s hat holder in the film.
The film is fun and enjoyable, but make no mistake, it’s a chase movie almost beginning to end, so it can be a little bit repetitive with the Bandit causing mayhem for Sheriff Justice and countless other law enforcement officers all the way from Texas back to Georgia. There are, of course, the requisite action set-pieces—the bridge jump, wave upon wave of crashing police cars skidding off the highway into rivers and ditches. But there are also a lot of heart and laughs, made possible because the cast just works together so well. It looks like everyone had a good old time making this, and we get the added pleasure of witnessing Burt Reynolds and Sally Field falling in love (and in real life too). The interchanges between Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason really carry the day, and the dialogue includes gems such as “Nobody, and I mean NOBODY makes Sheriff Buford T. Justice look like a possum’s pecker,” “I think I’m in love with your belt buckle (that one is from Sally Field thankfully!),” and my personal favorite “There’s no way, NO way that you came from my loins. Soon as I get home, first thing I’m gonna do is punch yo’ mamma in da mouth!” Absurd!
So if you’re in the mood for a film where no real thought is required (as the script was seemingly written in a few hours by the guy who brought us Wedding Crashers, years later), Smokey will be a fun distraction for the ninety minutes running time. Watch it for all of the above, the classic-if-incredibly-loud Trans Am, and that song, now stuck in my head…
East bound and down, loaded up and truckin’,
We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done.
We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.
I’m east bound, just watch ol’ Bandit run…
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