Smokey and the Bandit is a film that arguably changed pop culture in the 70’s and yet is largely forgotten by today’s audiences.
This is a shame as the film is now coming up on it’s 40th anniversary and Fathom Events, Universal Pictures and Turner Classic Movies have pulled out an amazing print to celebrate.
Smokey and the Bandit is a film of it’s time (of this there is no doubt) but it also started more than a few trends and ushered in a new wave of cinema.
Smokey and the Bandit is about beer “bootlegging”, car chases, flouting of the law and fun.
Two rich cats hire “The Bandit” and his truck driver partner “Snowman” to deliver 400 cases of Coors Beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours for the “prize” of $80,000.
Why all this for Coors?
Well lets travel back in time a bit. In 1977 Coors was really a regional beer and it was illegal for it to be sold East of Texas which created a huge bounty on smuggling of Coors over state lines. In the film this is an almost impossible task but “The Bandit” has a reputation to uphold (along with really needing the money). Through his adventure he encounters a runaway bride, a rogue lawman and just about every police officer between Texarkana and Atalanta.
The movie stars Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Sally Field, Paul Williams, Pat McCormick and Jackie Gleason and was just behind Star Wars in 1977 box office take.
Yeah, this movie made more money than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, and James Bond (The Spy Who Loved Me). At a cost of 3.3 Million (plus a million for Reynolds) it brought in almost $200 Million dollars (1977 dollars).
With the movie being a comedy you can guess there are plenty of antics and honestly genuine humor throughout. Jackie Gleason ad libs his entire role creating some really funny moments. Reynolds is less of a character and more charisma personified. His confident arrogant swagger is infectious. Reed is the second banana Snowman who gives an enthusiastic performance despite not really being an actor. Fields has the thankless role of being both the damsel in distress and the emotional center of the film and she shines where another actress may have faltered.
Outside of the human cast there is the major draw the film had… cars and lots of destruction. Director Hal Needham started as a stuntman and brings that expertise with him in creating a cavalcade of mayhem and chaos with cars exploding, falling, jumping, spinning and generally doing things cars should not be doing. This ends up creating an atmosphere of fun and insanity that just works.
What was it about the film which allowed it to hit so hard into the center of American culture the way it did?
Well first off the CB craze was already in full swing at this time and Smokey and the Bandit only made it more popular. Then you have that the so called “Hicksploitation” boom was already popular at the box office and Smokey and the Bandit combines this with action and fun. The movie was such a success that after the films’ release sales of the Iconic Firebird Trans-Am used in the movie went up almost 60% the following year.
Smokey and the Bandit would be imitated almost immediately by others hoping to cash in and itself had 2 theatrical sequels (with Smokey and the Bandit III being a disaster of epic proportions) and even in 1994 a series of four TV movies were made with Brian Bloom taking over for Burt Reynolds.
What makes the film work is that is exactly what it sets out to be. There is no high minded attempt at subtext or concern with telling a deep story. Smokey and the Bandit is about having fun, nothing more and nothing less. The film has it’s share of admirers among them Alfred Hitchcock who called Smokey and the Bandit a “guilty pleasure” of his and was in fact the final film he screened prior to his death.
Smokey and the Bandit may be lost on the film goer of today though. At the screening I attended there was a sizeable crowd… and not a single one of them was under 30. I guess kids and teens don’t care about the OTHER film that defined cinema from 1977.
Fathom Events brought out an exquisite print of the movie to celebrate this monumentous occasion. If you missed it you should at least check out the film on DVD or Blu-ray. It really brings you to another time… a time when a PG movie could have dozens and dozens of swears, some cringe inducing terms used casually (“fag” being the main one), racial humor that would not be tolerated today and a time when what is now-called sexual assault was then called “a joke”.