By the mid-1970s it seemed like Burt Reynolds could do no wrong at the box office. With films like White Lightning and The Longest Yard (1974), he had become one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world.
In 1977, he decided to mix his star power with one of the most successful film genres of the 1970s, the car chase movie. The end result was Smokey and the Bandit, a film that became one of the top hits of the decade.
Burt Reynolds is in rare form as Bandit, an ultra-macho truck driver who has become a legend throughout the American South for his amazing driving skills and his ability to elude the law. However, Bandit has the bad habit of talking as fast as he drives. As a result, he unwittingly talks himself into a bet with Big Enos and Little Enos.
These two colourful entrepreneurs bet Bandit that he cannot transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in 18 hours. If he wins, he scores $80,000. Bandit takes the bet, enlisting his good-ol’-boy buddy Snowman to help him transport the goods in a truck while Bandit rides flank in his beautiful, souped-up black Trans-Am.
Bandit and Snowman make their way to Texarkana and pick up the load of beer with ease. However, they make one big mistake on their way out: Bandit decides to give a ride to Carrie (pictured at left), a young woman who has decided to run away from her wedding at the last moment.
In the process, Bandit angers the groom’s father, who happens to be the venerable Sheriff Buford T. Justice (pictured below right).
Justice swears vengeance upon Bandit and gives chase to him and Snowman, enlisting the help of every lawman along the way to stop the fast-driving duo before they make it back to Atlanta. As Bandit, Snowman and Carrie race for the finish line, they go through an endless array of increasingly insane car chases and leave plenty of wrecked cop cars in their wake.
The car chases took up a large portion of Smokey and the Bandit’s running time, but they were truly worth it. Simply put, the chase scenes in this film are to car-chase cinema what The Three Stooges’ routines are to slapstick comedy.
Director Hal Needham was a stunt choreographer before he made his directing debut with this film, and the experience showed: the chases were expertly filmed, perfectly timed, and had an over-the-top, cartoonish sense of inspiration that still never fails to make a viewer’s jaw hit the floor.
As a result of this movie’s success, Needham went on to direct many more Burt Reynolds films.
Another important key to the film’s staying power is Burt Reynold’s self-assured leading man charm. No matter how silly the film got, his charisma kept the viewer riveted to the screen.
The film also benefited from an array of colourful supporting performances. Jerry Reed was charmingly ‘down-home’ as Snowman and also provided many of the country-and-western tunes on the film’s soundtrack. Sally Field also turned in a spunky performance as the neurotic but spirited Carrie.
Fields also generated a memorable chemistry with Reynolds. As history revealed, the sparks that flew between the pair were very real, and they became a romantic item after making this film.
However, the true acting triumph in the film belonged to Jackie Gleason. It was his first film performance in seven years and his wickedly funny performance as the hot-blooded and blustery Sheriff Justice made a whole new generation of viewers aware of his comedic skills. As a result, he made a comeback and starred in further comedy hits like The Toy.
Contrary to popular belief, Smokey and the Bandit did not invent the car-chase movie. This cinematic territory had mined successfully throughout the 1970’s by hits like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and The Gumball Rally. In fact, most of the people involved thought of it as a quickie film aimed at the Drive-In market, and it was made quickly on a modest budget of $4.5 million.
However, the film ended up grossing over $126 million in the USA alone. It ended up second only to Star Wars on 1977’s biggest hits list and spawned a wave of imitators on both film (Smokey Bites The Dust) and television (The Dukes of Hazzard).
In light of Smokey and the Bandit‘s tremendous success, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. In 1980, Bandit and all the other major characters made their triumphant return in Smokey and the Bandit II. In this story, Bandit has become a washout after his original success.
When he is challenged by Big Enos and Little Enos (pictured at right) to transport a pregnant elephant across the country in 24 hours, Bandit enlists his pals to pull the strange mission off and once again runs afoul of Sheriff Justice. The end result was plenty of crazy car chases and another major box office hit.
Over the years, Reynolds continued to do further car-related films with Hooper, The Cannonball Run (1981) and Stroker Ace. He never made another Smokey film, but the series was so successful that another film was demanded by audiences around the world.
Thus, Jackie Gleason was enlisted to make a film called Smokey Is The Bandit, which revolved around Sheriff Justice chasing down the Bandit once more, only to discover that he himself is the Bandit.
The finished film confused test audiences, and it was re-shot with Jerry Reed filling in as the Bandit. Burt Reynolds also contributed a brief cameo at the end of the film. The end result was released as Smokey and the Bandit III to a modest box-office response. There have been no further attempts to revive the series since then.
Sheriff Buford T. Justice