R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Smokey and the Bandit

In the 1970’s, Burt Reynolds was a god. There was a time from about 1972 to 1983 that the man could do no wrong. Whether Burt was starring in hard hitting comedies such as The Longest Yard or classic films such as Deliverance, Burt starred in films that the public came to in droves. This is not to say that all of these pictures were good movies. There aren’t conventions every year (or at least I hope there aren’t) celebrating the release of Gator or Hooper.

Eventually, the bad movies caught up to Burt. While fans rushed out to see Cannonball Run, the sequel did half the original’s business. Stroker Ace was another in a long line of films where Burt basically sleepwalked though his role as a daredevil driver. Does anyone even really remember Sharky’s Machine? City Heat should have been a huge smash as it teamed Burt with another actor that could have arguably claimed to have been the biggest star in the world, Clint Eastwood. All that ended up getting smashed was Burt’s jaw. The star ended up losing thirty pounds on a liquid diet due to the broken jaw.

From there it was a downward spiral, as Burt eventually hit rock bottom in films like Cop and a Half and Striptease. Eventually, there would be a comeback. Burt would feel adulation from a group who had never really been his friends; critics. When Boogie Nights was released in 1997, Burt was heavily praised for his role as Jack Horner, receiving an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In 2005, Burt has supporting roles in films that owe much to his older successes. First, the remake of Reynolds’ The Longest Yard was a big hit earlier this year. Now, Reynolds is the heavy in the #1 hit remake of The Dukes of Hazzard, a television show that was heavily influenced by the film that may have immortalized the actor. At the height of his popularity, this film put the actor square on top.

Smokey and the Bandit Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, and Jackie Gleason. Directed by Hall Needham.

So liquor laws in the 1970’s must have been funny. The premise of the film has Bandit, a legend of the highways for evading the law and generally showing off, taking a bet that he can get a truckload of Coors from Texarkana to Georgia in 28 hours. That’s an 1800 mile round trip in 28 hours. If he makes it, he gets $80,000. If he’s late, he gets nothing. The big catch is that at the time there was a law that Coors beer could not be shipped east of Texas. Breaking this law is considered bootlegging. A man would have to be a maniac or just abundantly overconfident for taking on such a venture.

This is where Burt Reynolds’ Bandit comes in. All you need to know about this character you learn within the first 15 minutes of screen time. You see glimpses of the Bandit’s character through the supporting characters Big Enos Burdette and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams). The two characters are the ones putting up the $80,000 and discuss the possibility of the rogue taking their challenge. Without even seeing Reynolds’ face, we know that Bandit is cocky and brash, as his truck is painted with a mural of a cowboy on horseback robbing a stagecoach. Coming upon the outlaw, the Burdette’s are greeted with Bandit’s indifference as he doesn’t even remove his hat from his face. After the vertically challenged Burdette asks if the Bandit is scared of the deal, Bandit comes back with “that’s great psychology, why don’t you just insult my mother.”

With certain actors, a role comes along that changes how the public sees them, causing their screen persona to be a variation on that role from there on out for better or for worse. Before 1965, Clint Eastwood had small supporting roles in films. Forgettable characters in Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula took up Clint’s filmography before Sergio Leone came calling to take Clint from TV star to world wide phenomenon in A Fistful of Dollars. After Clint’s Man with No Name character hit theater screens, the role defined the rest of his career. After Fistful came the sequels, then Hang ’em High all the way to Unforgiven which was the antithesis of that first major role.

Unfortunately for Burt, that role was The Bandit. After Smokey and the Bandit came out, his screen persona changed. Gone was the slow burn of Deliverance‘s Lewis Medlock or the charming charisma of Paul Crewe from The Longest Yard. In was Bandit’s cocky smile and goofy hijinx. Looking at J.J. McClure from Cannonball Run, Ed Earl Dodd from The Best Little Whore House in Texas, and Stroker Ace in um…Stroker Ace, they’re all just Bandit warmed over. This was a major reason that Burt’s career stalled for about ten years. On the other hand, the first time out, Bandit lit up the screen. Audiences wanted goofy Burt and that’s what they got. Burt himself has said that he could have tried to keep doing smaller, more artistic pictures, but then his career may have been over much sooner.

In all honesty, this may have been the role Reynolds was born to play. Burt oozes Southern charm and wit as he sweet talks his way out of situations and convinces his buddy Snowman (Jerry Reed) into joining him in the caper. He knows how to get what he wants and knows just what to say to get it. Snowman is reluctant to put himself on the line again for this scoundrel, but Bandit is persistent.

Bandit has the bright idea of having himself drive in front of Snowman as a blocker. That is Bandit will drive his newly acquired Trans Am in front of the truck holding the beer in order to scout for cops (or smokeys) and then keep all the heat on himself, so Snowman can make his delivery safely. This comes up big later in the film.

The first half of the trip goes really smoothly. One run-in with the law has Bandit evading an officer rather easily. The best moment of the chase has Burt grinning into the camera with that “Burt Reynolds Smile”. It’s a great moment that really encapsulates the character and Burt. A show off that wants to entertain his audience, whether it is those that worship him on the road in the film or those that came to see Burt Reynolds beat the bad guys again.

On the way back, things go downhill fast. First, Bandit nearly runs down Sally Field’s Carrie as she escapes her own wedding. She’s still in the dress as she forces her way into the Trans Am and asks Reynolds’ character “Does this thing move?” Unbeknownst to Bandit, the groom that Carrie is running from is a Texas Deputy County Sheriff. His father, Sheriff Buford T. Justice, is in hot pursuit as soon as he finds out about Carrie’s escape in Bandit’s signature black car.

Anyone riding with Sally Field’s Carrie would inevitably have to fall for her. Field is simply cute as a button here. The woman has never been particularly considered a sex symbol, but here she shows a real charisma. Carrie is absolutely adorable and gets more and more likable as the film goes on. She’s the perfect match for Bandit’s roguish antics as she seems completely wholesome. Field may have had better roles in her career, but she’s never been cuter.

Considering the rest of the picture is basically one long chase scene, it’s essential that Bandit have an appropriate heavy. This comes in spades with Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice. The Sheriff is a mountain of a man, with a supremely commanding presence on screen. On top that, Sheriff Justice provides some of pictures biggest laughs. He and his son are in a high speed chase with the bandit, and seem to run into every scenario for a car accident one could think is possible. Taking a note from Keystone Kops of early cinema, Sheriff Justice is not above a prat-fall or just making himself look silly.

This was unfortunately Jackie Gleason’s last memorable role. The comedy pioneer, whom Orson Welles dubbed “The Great One”, had brought laughter to millions as Ralph Kramden on The Honey-Mooners and starred in classics such as The Hustler. He would star in both of the Smokey sequels, but would be gone by 1987, at the age of 71. Gleason was a consummate performer who loved to make people laugh. Gleason based his character in this picture on Reynolds’ own father, who was a Georgia sheriff (Buford T. Justice was actually the name of an associate of Reynolds’ father). The most famous mannerism Gleason took from the Georgia sheriff was the shortening of “son of a b*tch” to “sumb*tch”. Gleason was actually said to be very pleased that he had enough influence that this phrase took off in the Deep South.

Only one movie made more money than Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. That film, Star Wars, ended up taking the title for the highest grossing film of all time. All in all, Smokey and the Bandit is a very entertaining movie. The nonstop chases and laughs keep the film from feeling tiresome. Unfortunately the sequels can’t claim the same thing. Smokey and the Bandit II suffered from being a carbon copy of the original, but still did decent business at the box office. The leads are still funny, but there is a definite feeling of “been there, done that”. Reynolds did not return for the third film, but Sheriff Justice returned. The initial premise of the third film was going be Smokey is the Bandit, having Gleason play both roles, but initial test screening were too confusing for the audience. Jerry Reed was eventually brought in to reprise his Snowman role impersonating the Bandit. The film is as bad as it sounds.

Smokey and the Bandit was the debut of Director Hal Needham. Unfortunately, it was also his best film, and not in a “Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ best film” kind of way. After this Needham went on to direct Burt in Stroker Ace, Hooper, the Smokey sequel and the Cannonball Run films. Why would Burt go from working with great Directors such as John Boorman and Robert Aldrich to working with Hal Needham all the time? My guess is that Needham just let Burt be Burt. The two had a great relationship together, and if they kept making hits, why break up a good thing?

So what is the legacy of this film in the end? The film represents the high point, and yet is also the beginning of a terrible downward spiral for its star. The film is the last memorable character for one of the great comedians of all time. Smokey and the Bandit was also the debut and pinnacle of Director Hal Needham’s career. For what it is, the picture is really entertaining. The car chases aren’t in the same league as Bullitt or The French Connection, but their fun in the harmless havoc they cause. The film’s influence can be seen in other comedies from The Blues Brothers with its determined police officers trying to run down Jake and Elwood, to new and old versions of Dukes of Hazzard, with their Southern antiheroes running from the law in their supped up muscle car. Smokey and the Bandit isn’t the best of its kind, but its definitely not the worst either.


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picture credits: Impawards.com, geocities.com/asasidenote, dacre.org, super-8-hobby.de, Amazon.com, DVDtimes.com

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