Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Yes. That’s Marching Through Georgia in that clip.

Smokey and the Bandit, which was the second highest grossing film in 1977, beaten out only by Star Wars, is not only a great “bad” movie. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late 1970s. Saturday Night Fever, which was released a few months later, showed the dark side of a democratized sexual revolution. Smokey and the Bandit was a lot more optimistic. Where Tony Manero and his thuggish friends in Brooklyn had taken all the fun out of sex, Bo “Bandit” Darville, Carrie the runaway bride, and Cledus “Snowman” Snow had rediscovered the joys of sticking it to the man.

1977 was a lot like 2016. An increasingly tolerant, liberal culture was dampened by a general sense of “economic anxiety.” The left had been crushed, but the establishment had not yet regained the confidence of the American people. It would take them a few years go fully go on the offensive. In 1980, they would unite behind Ronald Reagan and ram “morning in America” down our throats. In 1977, however, in the form of Jimmy Carter, they limited themselves to suggesting that we lower our expectations, that we get used to the idea that our children might not have it as good as we did. In 2016 that probably involves some combination of global warming, the recognition that single payer healthcare will, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “never ever happen,” and the creeping realization that, however hard we fight it, sooner or later Wall Street is going to get our social security money. In 1977 it meant gas.

If there’s one thing that divides Gen Xers and Boomers from Millennials it’s the memory of the gas lines of the 1970s. I’m sure that a good many Millennials have read about them, but I doubt very many know just how important the oil shocks were to the transformation of American culture. That cheap gas, which everybody thought would go on forever, had come to an end. GTOs, Mustangs, and tail-fin Cadillacs had become Ford Pintos and Chevy Vegas. Where only a few years before we had listened to President Kennedy tell us that we could go to the Moon, we had now resigned ourselves to watching President Carter put on a sweater and tell us to lower our thermostats. Just as in 2016, a lot of people in what would later become known as “red America” weren’t quite willing to accept reality. These days, all you have to do is go to your local newspaper’s website, and look at the comments under the latest weather report. There’s a lot of denial out there about global warming. Back in 1977, building the biggest, fastest muscle car you could afford with the most powerful, gas guzzling engine you could fit under the hood was an act of rebellion.

James Dean in that Mercury ’49

Junior Johnson runnin’ thru the woods of Caroline

Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am

All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

Bruce Springsteen, “Cadillac Ranch”

Smokey and the Bandit should have been a dumb, right-wing movie. That it wasn’t probably has something to do with that fact that its director Hal Needham was not an experienced filmmaker, but a Hollywood stuntman. Needham, who over the course of the 1950s and 1960s had broken 56 bones, his back, twice, punctured his lung and lost most of his teeth, wanted to make a fun little movie about bootlegging Coors Beer – back in the 1970s it was illegal to transport Coors Beer east of the Mississippi – and crashing as many cars as he could talk his backers into letting him buy. I doubt there are many uptight, conformist, or ideologically rigid Hollywood stuntman. The anti-authoritarian appeal of Smokey and the Bandit was of course going appeal to the urge of the redneck, white working class south against “the nanny state.” Sure Coors Beer tastes as much like piss water as Budweiser or Miller High Life, but since it was also made without any artificial preservatives that meant if you kept it sitting around long enough it could make you ill. What better way to stick it to the “nanny state” than to drink shitty beer that might just make you puke your guts out? Somehow, however, Needham makes a better movie than he intended.

When local millionaires Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette make Bo “Bandit” Darville, Burt Reynolds, an offer he can’t refuse — to pay him $80,000 if he’ll drive 700 miles from Atlanta to Texarkana, pick up 400 cases of very illegal Coors Beer, then drive 700 miles back to Atlanta, all in 27 hours — he knows he’s being played, that Big Enos and Little Enos expect him to get caught by the cops, but that’s part of the appeal. Sure the police might arrest him and throw him in jail for a few months, but along the way he’ll get to drive recklessly, needlessly burn gas to bring back a truckload of beer that tastes like any brand you could buy across the street in Atlanta, and add to his reputation as a “legend” in the world of long haul trucking. To me Reynolds seems just a little too obviously like a movie star to be believable as a truck driver, but it was the 1970s in the middle of the CB radio craze. Everybody thought truck drivers were cool. Bandit doesn’t drive the truck anyway. He leaves that to Cledus Snow, his long suffering partner. He drives that “Black Trans-Am” Springsteen sings about only three years later in Cadillac Ranch, his job being to drive so fast and so recklessly, to attract so much attention from the police that nobody will ever realize his partner is right behind him with over ten thousand cans of very illegal Rocky Mountain piss water. How could any self-respecting Georgia Good ol’ Boy turn down an offer like that?

Some things of course never change. The authority Bandit has so much fun sticking it to over the course of those 1400 miles, while played by actors portraying police officers, isn’t necessarily the police. It’s the government. The police in Smokey and the Bandit, like the Yankees in Buster Keaton’s The General aren’t villains. They’re just bumbling keystone cops, likable dimwits you can put one over on and come away with with little or no hard feelings. Nevertheless, when Hal Needham casts Sally Field, Burt Reynolds’ real life girlfriend, as Carrie, a woman from blue America – New Jersey to be precise – as a bride running away from a comically authoritarian, and racist, redneck Sheriff, almost by accident he stumbles into making a film that might not exactly be a leftist film, but which is certainly a film any leftist can enjoy.

If “Buford T. Justice,” played by the immortal Jackie Gleason, and his dimwitted son “Junior Justice,” played by retired NFL linebacker Mike Henry, remind you a little of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, then you’re on the right track. I doubt Hal Needham was a liberal, but I have no doubt that any Hollywood stuntman would find a character like Buford T. Justice and his dimwitted son the perfect butt of an endless stream of practical jokes. Buford T. and Junior Justice are the southern patriarchy personified, clownish, incompetent, dimwitted, but, nevertheless, relentless. I very much doubt Burt Reynolds is any more a liberal than Hal Needham, but he is a lazy, easy going, laid back actor who’s not going to resist a script that lets him sit back, relax, and get laughs. What’s more, he and Carrie, who never actually calls herself a “feminist” but who’s obviously meant to signify a “liberated” 1970s woman, have genuine romantic chemistry, something you can’t fake, and something Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher certainly didn’t have in Star Wars. Carrie is quite literally running away from the patriarchy, and the “Bandit” is perfectly willing to help her do it, as long as it’s fun.

It’s Smokey and the Bandit’s hook that seals the deal. A lot of very good 1970s films tied themselves to fads. Breaking Away exploited the 1970s cycling crazy, and Saturday Night Fever owed part of its box office success to Disco. For Smoke and the Bandit, of course, the fad is the CB radio. I’m not sure if truckers still use them. Certainly nobody puts them in their cars anymore, not since we all got cell phones, but back in the late 1970s they were a cultural phenomenon. They were, for lack of a better comparison, like social media for the working class. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, there was no hierarchy on CB radio. You didn’t know how many “followers” your fellow users had. You couldn’t block people you thought yourself too good for. You didn’t lecture people about their “entitlement.” What you did do, especially if you were a long-haul trucker, was use your CB radio to organize against the police. In the 1970s, the 55 MPH speed limit was also part of the “nanny state,” a measure enacted not so much for safety as to save gas. CB radios were a way of learning when and where it was safe to speed just like the good old days of the 1950s. As Carrie, “Snowman” and “Bandit,” make their way east to Atlanta, they find that, like a non-violent Bonnie and Clyde, they’ve become folk heroes. All their fellow southerners, white, black, male female, bourgeois, proletarian, sex worker or church deacon, want to see them make it back to the Lakewood Fairgrounds, collect the $80,000 dollars, and, most importantly, beat the cops.

It’s actually a little shocking just how anti-racist Smokey and the Bandit is. When Buford T. Justice meets up with Sheriff Branford, played by African American actor George, no relation to Burt, Reynolds, he not only refused to believe that he’s the Sheriff, he wonders “what the world is coming to.” You can just see Justice in 2016 as a Tea Partier or a Trump supporter. When “Snowman” stops along the highway to fill his truck up with gas and have lunch, we notice that he’s good friends with the black owner and the black wait staff. Not so with the white customers, a redneck biker gang who provoke him into a confrontation, and beat him bloody. He gets his revenge by running over their Harley Davidsons with his truck. But it’s the final scene that fully convinced me that Needham, or Burt Reynolds, or one of the film’s editors, or someone, is pulling a fast one on the racist redneck south. As Snowman and Bandit approach the Lakewood Fairgrounds, and we a massive roadblock of Georgia State Troopers, we hear music. It’s not “Dixie” or heavy metal, or the 1970s hit trucker, CB radio song “Convey.” It’s the Civil War Union anthem “Marching Through Georgia,” the very music William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops sang as they marched from Atlanta to the sea, and put the final nail in the coffin of the Confederate South. I have searched high and low on the web for what exactly the intentions of Needham and Reynolds — both real southerners who had have absolutely known the cultural significance of Marching Through Georgia — were, but have found no real answers.

I suppose they just thought it was a funny joke. In my mind, however, it feels like the cinematic gods were apologizing to Abe Lincoln for Buster Keaton’s decision to make the hero of his great chase film The General – which is the progenitor of Smokey and the Bandit and every other chase film – a Johnny Reb and not a Yankee. Smokey and the Bandit was a massively profitably hit, costing $3 million dollars and making $300 million. The General, on the other hand, while a much greater film, was initially a flop. Keaton was never again allowed full control over a big budget Hollywood film. Bo Bandit Darville may be laughing at Buford T. Justice, but William Tecumseh Sherman is laughing at Hollywood.

Final note: Every other film Hal Needham made not only sucks, but massively sucks. Buster Keaton, Hollywood’s first great stuntman/director, had dozens of good films in him. Hal Needham, the last, had only one.

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