In the summer of 1977, audiences went crazy for a scrappy adventure movie about a plucky band of rebels—comprised of a handsome and roguish bootlegger, a reluctant but brave ‘boy’ from farm country, a beautiful escapee and a hairy beast—who leading a resistance movement against the totalitarian forces of oppression as represented by a grotesque monster and an army of storm troopers.
I’m talking, of course, about Smokey and the Bandit.
Burt Reynolds stars as Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville, a much sought-after truck driver and racer known for his smooth and flashy ways. Enlisted by wealthy father-son duo to illegally smuggle 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in under 28 hours, he enlists the help of his partner, Cledus ‘Snowman’ Snow (Jerry Reed) and his trusty basset hound Fred, and together they hatch a plan in which Snowman will drive a big rig loaded with the (stolen) beer, while Bandit takes the wheel of a Pontiac Trans-Am and uses it as a “blocker” (aka, a decoy). Things get complicated when Bandit picks up a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field)—he’ll later give her the “handle” of Frog—and they find themselves dogged by a furious Texas Sheriff named Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and his dimwitted son Junior, who Frog left at the altar.
At 98 minutes, the movie is as pure a romp as has ever graced the screen, its infectious energy ultimately earning it the second biggest box office haul of 1977, after Star Wars. Forty-five years later, George Lucas’s spacefaring fantasy remains a money-making juggernaut, lording over the culture like the Death Star itself. Smokey and the Bandit on the other hand, while not forgotten, has become grossly underseen by younger audiences, who seem to harbor the entirely misbegotten notion that it’s little more than a cheesy ‘70s curio.
The directorial debut of former Reynolds stunt double Hal Needham, Smokey was originally intended to be a more traditional slice of low budget, southern-fried exploitation, as well as a star vehicle (no pun intended) for Nashville singer Reed. But when Reynolds, who at the time of its conception had been letting Needham live in his pool house for 12 years, read the “script” (such as it was), he volunteered to star in it if Needham could get the funding. With Reynolds attached, that didn’t prove difficult, although the studio did cut the budget from $5.3 to $3.3 million just as production was set to begin. Reed stayed on the project, taking the sidekick role and providing the film with its iconic theme song, “Eastbound and Down”. The cast was rounded out with the additions of Field and Gleason, both of whom were brought on at the request of Reynolds.
Thanks to a well-planned release strategy that saw it open in southern markets before rolling out across the rest of the country, Smokey & the Bandit became the sleeper hit of its year. The film’s impact and influence on both its players and the larger popular culture were immediate: it solidified Reynolds as the period’s most popular lead actor, gave Field the jump from TV to film stardom she needed (she’d win the first of her two Oscars the very next year), gave Gleason a big comeback eight years before he passed away, and established Needham’s directorial career. It also made a star out of the Pontiac Trans-Am, boosted sales of Coors Beer and helped feed the fires of the CB radio craze of the day (we can thank the film for introducing basic CB jargon like “10-4” and “Breaker 1-9” into the public lexicon, along with more beautifully wacky lingo such as “smokey”, “choke and puke”, “county mounty” and “Diablo sandwich”, as well as Gleason’s pronunciation of “Sumbitch.”)
It proved the biggest and most enduring title to come out of the brief CB radio/trucker/bootlegger/cross-country race fad, an altogether underrated subgenre that includes the likes of White Line Fever, Citizen’s Band, Convoy, Every Which Way But Loose, Every Which Way You Can and the subsequent collaborations between Reynolds and Needham: Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run 1, Stoker Ace and Cannonball Run II. (On television, you also had The Dukes of Hazard and B.J. and the Bear.)
For as much as these films are remembered today—if they’re remembered at all—as objects of their time, they actually tap into a long lineage of folk tales, particularly those that posit the American outlaw as the hero and the forces of law and order as the villains. Most of these films present the police as bumbling fools, a la the Keystone Cops, even as they recognize their inherent antagonism and corruption.
As the foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, slovenly and hapless Sherriff Justice, Gleason (who ad-libbed and improvised almost all of his scenes) takes the small-town Sheriff as tinpot dictator—by no means an invention of the movies; in fact, the character was inspired by a real Florida police chief of the same name known to Reynolds’ father—and makes him into a figure of pure ridicule. While not the first example of such—the James Bond franchise beat Smokey to the punch a few years earlier with the hilariously out-of-place inclusion of Sheriff JW Pepper (Clifton James) in 1973’s Live and Let Die and 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun—but it remains the archetypal example to this day. (Reynolds would himself take on such a role when he played Boss Hogg in the 2005 feature reboot of The Dukes of Hazard).
Importantly though, Smokey doesn’t set Justice up as one bad apple out of the bunch, but instead treats all cops with smirking contempt, and the movie is at its most rousing during the set pieces in which various blue collar folks across racial and gender divides band together to help Bandit elude capture, while also taking any opportunity to smash up some “bubble gum machines” (read: cop cars) real good.
This gleeful but sincere anti-establishment ethos was prevalent in several of Reynolds’ films during his glory days—if you think Smokey has it out for cops, you should watch Reynolds and Needham’s follow-up, and true masterpiece, Hooper—something that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic landscape. Just as unthinkable is the existence of an action movie with stakes as low as Smokey’s, and I’m not just referring to the central Macguffin of 400 cases of beer. For as tight as the film’s plot and pacing are, and for as much sheer mayhem is on display, Smokey is about as laid back a movie as they come.
At the time of its release, the lack of narrative tension was one of the things critics took issue with; Gene Siskel, for example, called out the gaps in the story’s dramatic logic. The actual challenge that kicks off the plot is never really important, something the movie makes very clear in its closing minutes. But far from proving an anticlimax, this puts the movie’s true strength in sharp relief. For as great as the action and stunts are, and as funny as the comedy is, what makes it so endlessly rewatchable is the pleasure you get from simply spending time with the characters. Smokey and the Bandit is, ultimately, as much a hangout movie as any of the more languid, plotless films that generally get labeled such.
In this summer of its forty-fifth anniversary, Smokey and the Bandit deserves to be celebrated not just as a charming pop culture phenomenon of a bygone era, nor even simply an assured bit of comedic action filmmaking. Rather, it deserves recognition as an idiosyncratic film with more going on under the hood than people usually give it credit for, and the type of pure entertainment that blue collar audiences used to lap up like so many cans of Coors.
“Smokey and the Bandit” is available for digital rental or purchase.