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Smokey and the Bandit at 45:”What the hell is the world coming to?”

Smokey and the Bandit Anniversary

Hal Needham’s good-old-boy romp is still as silly and dumb and charming as it was nearly a half-century ago.

I have spent the last hour or so trying to figure out a way into this piece commemorating the 45th anniversary of Smokey and the Bandit, a goofy exercise in hicksploitation that exceeded all expectations to become one of the biggest hits of 1977. On the one hand, the film is an undeniably puerile conglomeration of noisy car crashes and jokes that were on the retrograde side even back in the day. On the other, it’s a film that’s entertained me mightily over the years and still does. 

That said, I would never refer to Smokey and the Bandit as a “guilty pleasure,” because that would suggest that I feel some degree of embarrassment over my admiration for it. That’s simply not true—as dumb as it is, it does have a certain charm that helps move it along while (mostly) overlooking its shortcomings.

The film was the brainchild of Hal Needham, a top film stuntman who conceived of the project as a way to make his directorial debut. After having trouble getting anyone in the industry to take it (or him) seriously, Needham reportedly passed his first-draft screenplay, allegedly written on memo pads, to his longtime friend Burt Reynolds, who deemed it to be the worst script that he had ever read. 

Nevertheless, he agreed to sign on in order to help his friend, and Universal Pictures agreed to make it at a budget of $5.3 million on the assumption that with Reynolds (who would be paid $1 million for his participation) in the lead, it would most likely make a decent profit. Their confidence didn’t last too long, however, as just a couple of days before production was to commence, the studio informed Needham that they were cutting the budget by $1 million, necessitating a last-second overhaul of the production schedule.

Reynolds plays Bo “Bandit” Darville, an Atlanta-based driver who has become semi-legendary in the south for his savvy behind the wheel of a car. Bandit is engaged by a pair of obscenely wealthy Texas dipshits, Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son, Little Enos (Paul Williams), to drive out to Texarkana to pick up 400 cases of Coors (which at the time was unavailable east of Oklahoma, because the lack of preservatives and stabilizers meant that it would spoil in about a week without refrigeration). Get them back to Atlanta in 28 hours, and he gets an $80,000 payoff. 

Bandit recruits Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) to help out—Snowman will drive the truck carrying the beer while Bandit, behind the wheel of a slick Pontiac Trans-Am, will serve as an advance scout to keep an eye out for cops and to distract them from the truck and its bootleg cargo, keeping in contact via the then-modern miracle of CB radio. 

Smokey and the Bandit Anniversary
Smokey and the Bandit (Screenshot)

The two get to Texarkana and pick up the beer easily enough, but as they begin heading back, Bandit is stopped by Carrie (Sally Field), who jumps into his car in order to escape her own wedding. Unfortunately for Bandit, she was supposed to marry the dim-witted son of blustery Texas lawman Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). He, along with his son, Junior (Mike Henry), takes off in high-speed pursuit of Bandit all the way back to Georgia, leading to scrapes and crack-ups that reduce his car to little more than four wheels and a floor by the end.

Like the “hicksploitation” films of the 1970s with which Needham’s work shares some provenance, Smokey is about as unsophisticated as can be and unapologetically redneck to boot. The jokes are dumb, the attitudes are worse (including jokes about wife-beating and lynching) and the characters are so paper-thin that you can practically see through them. The various car stunts and crashes that punctuate practically every scene are well-staged, I suppose, but there are so many of them they get wearying after a while. They threaten to turn the movie into little more than a demolition derby (and this is coming from someone who worships The Blues Brothers).

And yet, despite the junky nature of the whole enterprise, I liked Smokey and the Bandit a lot when I first saw it as a kid back in the day, and it still has a soft spot in my heart. Needham’s cinematic style is undeniably crude—the stunt sequences are well-rendered, but he’s all thumbs when characters are just supposed to talk—he finds the right approach to the material, which is to essentially treat it as a live-action cartoon. Bandit is the cool and collected Bugs Bunny type and Justice is the explosive Yosemite Sam, who causes far more damage to himself than his enemy ever does. It may not be the most sophisticated approach, but it helps sell even the dumbest of the jokes (like Justice exiting a truck stop without realizing he’s trailing a roll of toilet paper behind him).

Smokey benefits mightily from the charm of its lead performers, all of whom seem to realize that they are appearing in a big goof and have elected to act accordingly. Reynolds offers up a version of his talk show persona—a Good Ol’ Boy who knows he’s hot shit but who can still come across as self-effacing when necessary—that fits nicely with the material. He plays well with co-stars Reed and Field (who began their much-publicized romance while working on the film). 

Gleason, working mostly on his own, doesn’t get to do much more than yell, fume and say things that most certainly would not pass muster today. But he manages to wring a number of actual laughs out of the material. He reportedly improvised most of his lines, most notably the inspired scene in which Justice chats with a fellow truck stop diner without realizing that he’s the very same person he’s pursuing.)

When the film opened at Radio City Music Hall, it fared badly both critically and commercially. Sophisticated audiences dismissed it as little more than an expensive drive-in movie. When it began playing in the southern United States, however, it was a major hit; when it opened in northern states a couple of months later, it eventually became the second-highest-grossing film of 1977, beaten only by a little thing called Star Wars

The film’s success would lead to a slew of ripoffs and retreads of the basic formula over the next few years. Indeed, Needham and Reynolds, after retreating for the inspired stuntman tribute Hooper (1978), would try make lightning strike twice with such nonsense as The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), The Cannonball Run 2 (1984), and the inevitable Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). Of course, all of these are dire enough to make you appreciate the undeniable charms of the original all the more. 

Yes, Smokey and the Bandit is dumb, crude and idiotic, and I cannot imagine what it must play like to someone watching it for the first time today. However, unlike a number of blockbuster “entertainments” that I could mention (I’m looking at you, Top Gun: Maverick), it has a friendly and easy-going charm that keeps it humming along even when the crudeness of both the hour and the filmmaking threaten to overwhelm it. Like the Coors that serves as the film’s MacGuffin, Smokey and the Bandit is like a cold beer on a hot day—it isn’t especially good for you by any means but boy, does it ever hit the spot.

Smokey and the Bandit Trailer:

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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