Amazon Prime is featuring Smokey and the Bandit (Universal Studios, 1977) in tribute to Burt Reynolds, who died this past week at 82. I was 8 when the movie came out, and I remember coming home from summer camp and going to see it in the theater with my childhood friend, Steve K. We counted the cuss words in the movie – I remember that we emerged from the cinema telling our friends that there were 76 bad words uttered in the film. We thought that was awesome. My parents, however, didn’t like the movie. They said it was disrespectful to law enforcement, and they were generally put off by movies about irreverent playboy outlaws being pursued by pathetic and humorless cops.
Anyway, I spent this past Saturday night watching Smokey again for the first time in decades, and while I can’t say that there’s anything about this movie that asks to be taken seriously, I was surprised by some of the images and touches in the film. It’s a film whose Southern US world is one where white good ole boys, working class black folk, truckers, prostitutes, and little old church ladies are friends and collaborators in resisting the authority of ridiculous white lawmen, who themselves are the poorly paid errand boys of repugnant Southern white billionaires who have so much money and power that they entertain themselves by placing bets on contests in which the working people try to pull off risky and absurd feats. That’s right: Smokey and the Bandit is a socialist allegory aimed squarely at the capitalist menace. OK, not really. But there’s some surprising social commentary embedded in a movie that is basically a cinematic bag of potato chips. Read on if you’re interested and I’ll explain more 🙂 …
The premise of the movie is that a crazy rich southern bazillionaire named Big Enos (yes, really) is planning a massive party at the Atlanta fairgrounds late the next day, and he’s looking for a trucker who is willing to make a mad dash to a warehouse in Texarkana, Texas, pick up 400 cases of Coors Beer, and hurry it all back to Atlanta in time for the party. It’s a 900 mile schlep each way, and Big Enos is willing to pay $80,000 to have it done. The catch is they only get paid if they make it back with the beer on time. The party starts in 28 hours.
Why Coors, and why can’t Big Enos just send someone to Sam’s Club to get the beer? Because this is 1977, and the US still operates under a strange mish-mash of long pointless laws regulating the regional territories where certain alcoholic beverages are allowed to be sold. You can’t get Coors in Georgia, not legally anyway. To haul the wrong kind of beer over the wrong state lines is a crime called bootlegging. Big Enos wants to impress his party guests with the forbidden suds.
I’ll note that the Enos duo are having the party because they own a thoroughbred that is highly favored to win a big horse race the next day, and the Coors is for the celebration they are planning for after the horse race. Basically, in the story world of Smokey, the 1% are so rich and indifferent to the working people of America that they casually amuse themselves by betting on sporting contests involving animals as well as people.
Enter Burt Reynolds – “the Bandit” – and Jerry Reed – “the Snowman” – two drivers who are already legends for what exactly I’m not sure. (At one point Sally Field asks Reynolds what exactly it is that he does and is so good at, and Reynolds replies “showing off,” which seems to be about right.) Anyway, Big Enos dares them to accept the challenge. After some haggling over what the duo will need to avoid the state troopers enforcing the 55 MPH speed limit (which had recently gotten passed nationwide to save gas, due to the oil shortage crisis of 1973), the Bandit convinces Enos that he needs to buy him a souped up Trans Am that he’ll drive ahead of Snowman’s 18-wheeler. He’ll be Snowman’s blocker, using his CB to warn him of smokies ahead (smoky is the CB radio slang for state and country troopers, known for wearing cowboy hats of the same style as Smoky the Bear). If necessary, the Bandit will use his hot rod to bait and lure those same police vehicles away from Snowman’s high speed big rig. (And trust me – he will have to do this many times – that’s basically 80% of the movie right there.)
One important detail the movie presses upon us is that with the $80,000, Snowman (whose actual first name is Cledus) can buy his own rig. Cledus can get out of the trap of driving for The Man and finally own a little piece of the American Dream, which appears to be benefiting Big Enos and the rest of the flamboyant 1% and hardly anybody else.
The fun begins when the Bandit hits the road in an iconic black Trans Am convertible, westbound to the Texas border, clearing a path for Cledus’ 18-wheels. The movie quickly dispenses with the devilish duo getting the beer loaded up from the warehouse, setting up the eastbound mad dash to beat the clock and get paid. This is where Smokey asserts its place alongside thousands of years of Western literature and drama depicting the hero’s attempted long journey home, dodging and ducking obstacles, surviving unforeseen challenges, and adding to their glory with each new triumph. Except in this case, it’s all done with Burt Reynolds’s never-gets-old high pitched little giggle punctuating most scenes.
The first unexpected twist arrives in the form of a woman in a full white bride’s dress standing in the middle of the road, flagging down the Bandit. Enter Sally Field as Carrie, who has just jilted her would-be husband at the altar and made her own vehicular mad dash before ditching the “just married” car she was driving and deciding to thumb a ride out of town. Before Burt Reynolds can flash his trademark mustachioed smile, Carrie is in the passenger seat, asking the Bandit to unzip her, so she can wriggle out of the wedding dress and toss each piece of it into the wind as they zoom away.
Carrie, it turns out, is a dancer who barely makes ends meet traveling and performing in small communities around the country. A drunken romantic night with a local sheriff’s son led to an ill-advised marriage proposal and an equally ill-advised “yes” on Carrie’s part. But after coming to her senses, Carrie ditches
Junior (Mike Henry), and in so doing humiliates his dad, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Father and son give chase after Carrie, and after they find her abandoned getaway car on the side of the road, they make inquiries and learn that she has taken off with a guy speeding like a demon in a black Trans Am. And the cat and mouse chase across the heart of Dixie begins.
So here’s the thing. Nobody is ever going to argue that Smokey is a feminist film. I mean, one of the bit parts is a woman whose CB handle is “Little Beaver,” and in one scene Cledus comments approvingly about Carrie’s backside, and she seems fine with it. This is a Burt Reynolds good-ole-boy movie, after all. And yet. There was no need for the cute meet between the Bandit and Carrie to involve her in the middle of the road in a wedding dress. She is a woman rejecting a false life that a corrupt and rigged society wants her to submit to, and that rebellion against a failing and meaningless system is why she decides to become the Bandit’s and Cledus’s fellow traveler.
Even the scene in which she gets out of her wedding dress and into comfortable clothes avoids exploiting her. Yes, there’s an erotic hint in her asking the Bandit to unzip her dress, but there are no shots of her undressed body as she shimmies and twists her way out of a very restricting and dishonest outfit and into one that seems natural for her, and in which she can be fully mobile. The Bandit never makes any aggressive sexual or romantic moves towards her either. They kiss a bit in a couple scenes, and we certainly are meant to think that they’re going to be a couple by the end of the film, but the Bandit respects Carrie, and he is curious to know her story and what makes her tick.
The next hour or more of the movie involves the Sheriff radioing ahead to a series of state and county troopers, shouting that he is in hot pursuit of a suspect, and ignoring all requests by the other law enforcement officers to stand down and let them deal with the Bandit. One by one, different sets of smokies set up roadblocks, and the Bandit outwits them all. This is the part of the movie where Jackie Gleason steals the show.
Sheriff Buford T. Justice is mean, ugly, bigoted, foul-mouthed, and piggish, and his jilted sidekick son, Junior, draws laughs for being dumb as a block. Justice is as repulsive as the Bandit is charming. Justice often looks like he’s about to have a heart-attack in the middle of one of his curse-laden tirades. The Bandit never loses his cool, and his brand of cool is friendly, fun-loving, and mischievous.
Of course – SPOILER ALERT – the trio of speeding beer bootleggers do make it to the fairgrounds in Atlanta on time, much to Big Enos’s surprise. But they don’t get there solely on the strength of their own abilities. No, using the power of the CB radio, they crowdsource their mission of eluding the authorities and beating the clock. And this is where Smokey offers up another of its pleasant social commentary surprises.
People from very different walks of life all respond to their radio requests for help – requests that are offered in CB slang that the movie helped popularize throughout the country. A little old white church lady warns them of police trouble up ahead. A goofy young couple jumps in the fray. A convoy of truckers and a pair of African-American hearse drivers – all of whom know and love the Bandit – drop what they’re doing to help with the ongoing dodge and weave.
Bandit and Race
I can’t make a serious claim that this film is a breakthrough in the history of Hollywood and its presentations of race in America. That said, Smokey brings race into its storytelling in several potent moments. The closest the movie comes to pivoting from comedic to serious takes place when Sheriff Justice radios ahead to some county troopers regarding his hot pursuit, and, of course, the sheriff on the other end of the radio responds with some version of “we’re setting up a roadblock” and “you’re out of your jurisdiction and need to let us handle this,” which of course Justice ignores.
The sheriff on the other end in this case is Sheriff George Branford (George Reynolds), who is an African-American lawman in charge of a team of white officers. After the Bandit manages to elude Branford’s depities, Justice ends up rear-ending Branford’s car at the end of an out-of-service bridge, which the Bandit has just successfully jumped, of course.
When Justice exits his vehicle, he peers down and sees Branford emerging from his car, and he says, pointing a finger and using his most condescending voice, “Hey boy, where’s Sheriff Branford?”
Branford replies, “I am Sheriff Branford.”
Justice regroups and says, “For sum reason or ‘nuther, you sounded a little taller on radio.” Then Justice turns to his son, Junior, and in a private aside, says, “What the hell is the world comin’ to?”
I think it’s Justice’s ugliest moment in the film, and it reminds the audience that this slapstick high-speed screwball comedy is set in a place where “Justice” can’t deal with racial equality.
There’s another surprisingly potent moment involving race in the film a few scenes later. Cledus stops at a “choke ‘n puke” – a truck stop diner – and ends up getting bullied and beaten up by a white gang. The cook at the place, Lamar, who is black, brings some food out to Cledus and offers his sympathy. “Sorry for what happened, Cledus,” he says. And Cledus leans in to embrace him, resting his forehead on Lamar’s for comfort in a genuinely tender moment.
I want to wrap this up, so I’ll just talk about one more aspect of this film that surprised me, and that’s the tenderness in the friendship between the Bandit and the Snowman. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s homoerotic. But it’s definitely intimate in a way that I’m not sure you’d be likely to see today in any movie celebrating good-ole-boy culture.
For example, near the beginning of the film, when the Bandit shows up at Cledus’s house, he learns from Cledus’s wife that he’s asleep. Undeterred, the Bandit bulldozes his way to Cledus’s bed, and then when he wakes him and demands his attention, he climbs on top of him. First, the two men are face-to-face:
Then, while the Bandit is propositioning Cledus – not for sex but to transgress in another way by joining him in a risky, illegal caper – Cledus actually rolls over, and the rest of the conversation takes place with the two friends like this:
My read on this? I don’t know whether the filmmakers intended it or not, but I think that what we’re seeing is that the Bandit seduces everybody – Jerry Reed, Sally Field, and his many, many fans spread across the working class of the 70s South.
As the chase continues to its inevitable victorious end for our heroes, Sheriff Justice’s police car keeps getting more and more banged up. Literally whole chunks of it get lopped off or bashed away. By the time he shows up at Big and Little Enos’s party, the entire roof and one door are missing from the vehicle.
The symbolism is clear: Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s South is falling apart. The wheels are literally coming off, and while the southerners like him cling to their longing for the days of a more robust version of Jim Crow (or worse), the Big and Little Enoses of the world are laughing their way to the bank. Think I’m making too much of this supposed symbolism? Maybe. But consider this: remember, the law that the Bandit and the Snowman are trying to break is a law that is completely pointless – the law that prevents people from getting one brand of beer over another based on which state they live in. Justice is trying to enforce a pointless law, and Justice is breaking all kinds of laws in the process. And nobody is doing anything to stop Big Enos from growing richer and richer by the minute. And – keep this in mind – this movie is hitting audiences in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, oil-shortage, high inflation second half of the 70s. The whole movie is a veritable Bernie Sanders commercial – or in this case, maybe a Colonel Bernie Sanders commercial…
My wife sometimes likes to say, “I was Country before Country meant Republican.” This movie – like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and other icons of the pre-Rush-Limbaugh South – was Country before Country meant Republican. And it was a heckuva lot of fun.
R.I.P. Burt Reynolds…