Originally the plan had been to induct this particular film into the vault today on the account of it being the late Jackie Gleason’s birthday. Then the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave me two more excellent reasons. The first, most obvious reason is Sally Field’s nomination for her supporting role in Lincoln. The second, awesomely fortuitous reason is that Hal Needham, stuntman extraordinaire and the writer-director of Smokey and the Bandit, received the Governors Award by the Academy. That’s three great reasons today is an excellent day to induct Smokey and the Bandit.
The legendary driver, Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds), is resting on his laurels at the Georgia Southern Classic when he’s approached by the father-son team of Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos (Paul Williams). Big Enos offers Bandit $80,000 for a beer run. If he can pick up 400 cases of Coors from Texarkana, TX and return to Georgia in 28 hours, he’ll get the cash. The only snag is, at the time, transporting Coors across state lines is considered bootlegging. Never one to back down from a challenge, even an illegal, Bandit enlists the help of his friend, Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) and off they go. All’s going smoothly until Bandit is waylayed by runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field) who joins his convoy. Unbeknownst to Bandit, she’s left the son of Texas County Mountie, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), at the altar and he’s in hot pursuit. After Bandit evades the sheriff, come hell or high water, Justice is determined to catch that ‘sum-bitch.’
Smokey and the Bandit is the debut of Hal Needham as both a writer and director with Robert L. Levy also receiving credit for the story along with three other writers receiving screenplay credits. Even with so many pens to paper, Sally Field felt the story was too thin and had to be convinced by then boyfriend Burt Reynolds to play Frog. Field is right; the plot runs on fumes, but a gripping plot isn’t the reason it became one of the highest grossing films of 1977.
Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason make Smokey and the Bandit so damned entertaining. Reynolds, with that winning smile and trademark laugh, reels viewers in from his very first scene. The Bandit explains to Snowman that he took the bet “for the good old American lifestyle: for the money, for the glory, and for the fun… mostly for the money.” The same can be applied to Reynolds who’s having a blast playing the laid-back, smooth-talking driver. On the flipside, Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford? T. Justice of Portague County is a seething bull, charging headfirst into one predicament after another. While the situations are funny, Gleason’s colorful reactions and remarks are the high point. Nearly every embittered line hurled at the Bandit, his son Junior (Mike Henry), and fellow law officers is improvised by Gleason and is instantly quotable. Playing Bandit’s companions, Jerry Reed and Sally Field, have their moments too, but it’s hard to compete with Gleason’s ostentatious, larger-than-life portrayal. Reed also deserves credit for co-writing two songs, and singing all three songs on the film’s soundtrack.
While listening to Justice come at Bandit over the CB with lines like “I’m tail grabbin’ your ass right now!” is a riot, watching the pursuit is the main event. Smokey and the Bandit has more dirt-kicking, tire-smoking, shock-destroying chases than you can shake a stick at. Those, a boatload of crashes, and the repeated abuse brought upon the Sheriff’s poor car is exhilarating and Needham’s cameras are there to capture every minute and angle of the action. The stunt work on Smokey and the Bandit is impressive, especially given the encroachment of CGI into modern-day chases.
Smokey and the Bandit does have its fair share of flaws. One minute Bandit and Snowman are alarmed at being behind schedule, the next Bandit has time to “take his hat off” and Snowman can chase after his dog Fred. Those are minor in comparison to all the fun audiences have watching this cast have a blast. If this classic has somehow eluded your attention, make like Sheriff Buford T. Justice and make it your mission to catch the Bandit as soon as possible.