Yeah, yeah, yeah. May 1977 is a landmark month in movie history, what with bringing to us the first Star Wars film and with it the birth of the “Star Wars franchise.” However, this same month also brought to us another cinematic gem; an underrated, oft-overlooked entry in the vast film oeuvre of actor Burt Reynolds which actually was the second highest-grossing flick of 1977. We’re talking about a movie that showcases the definitive battle between good and evil, rendering into sharp relief the intrinsic struggle between liberty and oppression, and offering hope that one man – along with a woman, another man and that man’s dog – can make a difference.
That’s right; we’re talking about Smokey and the Bandit.
This was one of the few movies I can remember going to see with my entire family. We went to a drive-in theater one balmy summer evening in Tampa, and my mother and father were in the front seats while my sister and I did our best to catch all of the action from the back seat. As I recall, my sister grew bored with the goings-on at some point, curling up on her side of the seat and going to sleep. I’m pretty sure my mother wished she could be anywhere but in that car, watching what I’m certain she thought had to be the stupidest movie ever committed to celluloid.
Meanwhile, my father and I were laughing our asses off.
Yes, we can admit that Smokey and the Bandit is really just an excuse to film cars driving fast, jumping over things, and getting the crap beaten out of them. In between all of those stunts is woven a plot with all the complexity of the ingredients on a bottle of water: Bo “Bandit” Darville (Reynolds) and his partner, Cletus Snow (aka “The Snowman,” played by Jerry Reed), accept a wager from a couple of rich assholes to drive from Atlanta to Texarkana, Texas where they’ll secure 400 cases of Coors beer – which at the time was not allowed to be sold east of the Mississippi River – and drive back in 28 hours. Waiting for them at the finish line are bragging rights and $80,000.
Sounds simple right? Of course it is, but Bandit and the Snowman find trouble in the form of Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice. With the lawman and his idiot son/deputy in manic pursuit, the Bandit and his shiny black T-top Trans Am stops just long enough to pick up a runaway bride (Carrie, aka “Frog,” played by Sally Field), who just happens to be fleeing the scene after leaving Justice’s son at the altar. Meanwhile, Snowman, driving the rig with all the beer, is just hoping to get back in time to collect the cash. In and around all this heavy angst and intense character introspection (or lack thereof) is a series of high-speed chases, jumps and crashes, and trash-talking on the finest communications tool ever bestowed upon the civilized world, the Citizen’s Band Radio.
Damn, but I love this movie.
It’s not high art by any stretch, but it ain’t boring. Reynolds, at the height of his career in the 1970s by this point, is immediately likable as the Bandit, and Jerry Reed is the ideal sidekick and partner in mischief and/or crime. Sally Field is both funny and adorable as “Frog,” the unwitting passenger on this crazy journey, and Sheriff Justice—the hilarious parody of every backwater redneck hick law dog in the history of backwater redneck hick law dogs—is played to utter, outrageous perfection by the late, great Jackie Gleason.
Written and directed by famed Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, Smokey and the Bandit was the first of several collaborations with Reynolds (Hooper, The Cannonball Run). It spawned two theatrical sequels and a handful of TV movies, all of which are best forgotten, but this first battle between a Smokey and a Bandit is sheer, goofy fun.
So, keep your pedal to the metal, good buddy. I’m 10-10 on the side, east bound and down.