Audiences in the mid-70s seemingly expected two things from their movie-going experiences – car chases and Burt Reynolds. So, just like the “you got your peanut butter in my chocolate” commercials, it only seemed natural to pair the two for a wild and crazy adventure involving CB radios, a black Trans-am, and a whole lotta Coors beer in the madcap cross-country adventure, Smokey and the Bandit.
Reynolds, a box-office magnet at the time, starred as Bandit, an outlaw truck driver who is legendary for not only his driving prowess, but his ability to escape law enforcement. When two entrepreneurs known as Big Enos and Little Enos make the Bandit a bet he can’t refuse, trucking 400 cases of rare Coors beer from Texarkana to Georgia in 28 hours, he at first says it can’t be done. When they offer an $80,000 reward, he decides to find a way. Tracking down his old cohort, Snowman, he convinces the reluctant trucker to drive the tractor-trailer while he scouts ahead for law enforcement in his shiny new, black Trans-Am, complete with T-top, high-performance engine and obligatory CB radio.
Picking up the beer presents no difficulty but their luck is short-lived. Bandit can’t help but give a pretty damsel-in-distress (and wearing a wedding dress) a ride. Unfortunately, her father-in-law-to-be is the infamous sheriff Buford T. Justice and she just skipped out on his son’s wedding. The chase is on and soon every cop in their path is determined to put the brakes on Bandit and the Snowman. Bandit’s driving skills manage to slowly destroy the Sheriffs cruiser, while leaving a wake of destroyed police cars behind them as they pull out all the stops to reach the finish line before being apprehended.
Few films since The French Connection had featured such memorable and thoroughly entertaining car chases. Directed by Hal Needham, a former stunt coordinator extraordinaire, the movie was a metallic ballet of bridge leaping, fender-crunching feats that defied gravity and physics as if this was some Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoon. With a perfect balance of comedy and action, box-office lines were soon wrapped around the block in that summer of 1977. CB radio dealers also had trouble keeping up with the new-found demand for their product, as everyone and their mother suddenly saw a need to install one in their vehicle, choose a handle, and say phrases like “10-4, good buddy” at every opportunity.
Burt Reynolds was dripping with leading man charisma, Sally Fields was perfect as the neurotic bride-not-to-be, and Jerry Reed was the southern gentleman, Snowman, who insists on bringing his Basset Hound to ride shotgun in his big rig. But the absolute show-stealer, bar-none, was the comedic genius of Jackie Gleason as Buford T. Justice. Not since his days on The Honeymooners was the actor given such a perfect vehicle in which to show his mastery of comedic timing. His facial expressions alone were worth the price of admission.
(Warning: Before you click, this clip contains some strong language)
Smokey and the Bandit was the second biggest hit of 1977, thanks to a little science fiction flick by George Lucas called Star Wars. Still, with a budget of $4.5 million, it managed to do a very respectable $126 million in the United States alone. And that box-office success could only mean one thing – sequels. The entire cast would return in 1980 for Smokey and the Bandit II. This time around, the Bandit is challenged by Big and Little Enos to transport a pregnant pachyderm across the country within 24 hours. Soon, Sheriff Justice is on the case and cars are crashing like a nationwide demolition derby. While not quite a charming as the original, this sequel managed to do just fine at the box offices in its own right.
Burt Reynolds would continue his box office successes with stunt-filled features like Hooper and Cannonball Run, leaving the Bandit behind for good. Meanwhile, the world was clamoring for another sequel. Jackie Gleason would reprise his memorable character once again in a film originally called Smokey and the Bandit, in which Buford T. Justice turns out to be the Bandit. Test audiences were understandably confused, both by the title and the lack of the other familiar faces, so the film was re-shot to include Jerry Reed and a brief cameo by Reynolds and re-titled, Smokey and the Bandit III. While the film enjoyed modest receipts, it paled in comparison to its predecessors, finally putting an end to the successful franchise.
There have been plenty of other similar movies over the years, but none were quite as endearing, quite as much fun as the original Smokey and the Bandit. It is to the car chase what Lucille Ball was to the sitcom, completely untouchable by the competition – much like the Bandit himself.
If you have fond memories of this film, maybe even had the privilege of seeing it as a kid despite the adult language, we’d love to hear your recollections of this classic in our comments section.