“Nobody, and I mean NOBODY makes Sheriff Buford T. Justice look like a possum’s pecker!” Well obviously except for the Bandit as the 1977 smash-’em-up finally gets the treatment that it’s deserved on DVD…
Despite its place on Sunday afternoons on ITV, which it plays with much of the gentle swearing not only silenced but also cut from the movie, Smokey And The Bandit was one of the highest grossing movies of 1977, second only to Star Wars. I grant you that the state of Texas probably accounted for most of that box office – how many young Texans took along their sister and girlfriend to a showing of Smokey And The Bandit in the front of their two-seater sports cars during ’77 – but regardless of how the dollars rolled in, they did.
And how they did, with Hal Needham’s dumb chase movie hauling in a ridiculous amount of money. Horrifying, even, suggesting that in the late-seventies, the world’s population staggered under a dizzying drop in intelligence as the work of such movie brats as Coppola and Scorcese got lost in the noise that surrounded Star Wars and, inexplicably, Smokey And The Bandit. And it’s based on what? The transportation of Coors beer across a state line…within the same country? Drawing an analogy between that and the moving of a crate of Boddingtons south of the Watford Gap may be inaccurate but, Europe-side, it remains the most bafflingly parochial reasoning behind a blockbuster that this viewer can recall. I can only imagine that if the trend begun by Red Ken ‘Red’ Livingstone for congestion charging ever makes it to the southern states, the Bandit may well have to dust off his Trans Am and walking aid to protest.
How fortunate, then, that Smokey And The Bandit draws a rhinestone veil over issues concerning the taxation of alcoholic beverages in favour of fast cars, big trucks, CB radio and the introduction of the biggest shit-eating grin since the devil gave Eve the apple, courtesy of Burt Reynolds. As the Bandit, Reynolds opens the film asleep on a hammock surround by signs promoting him as a legend. Says Little Enos (Paul Williams) to Big Enos (Pat McCormick), “I guess a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot a like, daddy!” but they have a proposition for him…a bet. Offering the Bandit $80,000, they ask him to go to Texarkana, pick up a truckload of Coors beer and transport it back to Georgia in 28 hours for a party that Big Enos is having. He and his friends are thirsty, you understand.
Never one to say no, the Bandit accepts the challenge – he too may be unaware that bringing Coors into Georgia is illegal but I doubt it…in fact, it’s more likely to be part of the attraction – and goes looking for his old buddy, Cledus ‘Snowman’ Snow (Jerry Reed). Cutting him in on the deal, the Bandit lets Snowman drive the truck while he takes ownership of a jet-black Pontiac Trans Am. Together, they leave for Texarkana and a shitload of beer. Loading up and setting off for Georgia and a date with Big and Little Enos, everything goes well until the Bandit stops for a hitchhiker…a girl in a white dress who’s running away from her wedding. Turns out that Carrie (Sally Field) was to have gotten married to Junior Justice (Mike Henry) but last-minute nerves saw her run out on her prospective husband. Now, though, Junior’s daddy, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), is out to haul her back to the alter. All the better when he finds out that Carrie has hitched up with a bootlegger and is speeding out of Texas heading for Georgia. Smokey is in hot pursuit…
“Eastbound and down / Eighteen wheels a-rollin’ / We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done!” Lord but do I love this film. Saying something for a second time that I first wrote about shortly after joining DVD Times, Smokey And The Bandit has informed my tastes in ways that only now, at a slightly more mature age, can I admit. I owned a CB radio, for the Bandit’s black Trans Am, I had a black Ford Capri and the Pontiac that I once hired in the US left me with such a giddy smile that I’d have been no happier than had the Avis receptionist offered me a handjob. I drew up when presented with cowboy boots and so tight a pair of jeans that my crazy teenage hormones would but bust a seam or two but otherwise, I was there. There because Smokey And The Bandit was just about the most enjoyable movie that I’d ever seen. And I have seen it a lot!
At heart, it’s a really daft movie. Were it a dog, you’d kind of feel sorry for it but as director Hal Needham sets about creating such a storm of auto destruction, such a stupidly great emblem to twisted metal that it’s a wonder that it doesn’t come with a government health warning. Police cars and bikes are crushed, collided with and sunk in such numbers that all one can do is simply give in to it. Cars drive into the water, off derelict bridges and simply off the road with such regularity that Smokey And The Bandit barely has time to draw breath before the next set of collisions is arrived at. Granted, the Bandit doesn’t have to do a great deal – as the Star Trek red shirts have a habit of attracting phaser fire to them, so Smokies are inextricably drawn to one another, particularly when driving patrol cars – but when he begins pulling off one rather nifty move after another, you can do little but hoot with pleasure in the direction of the television. It is something of a wonder that we don’t talk about the hooting of massed Texans of ’77 in the same way we do the Great Storm of 1987. One was surely heard in the same way the other was felt.
The greatest indignities are, of course, reserved for Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s car, which deteriorates throughout the film. Thanks to the front of Snowman’s truck, Justice’s car begins lightly, taking a dent here and there before director Hal Needham remembers that it must be the steel-and-plastic equivalent of crushed pavlova by the film’s end and so sets about destroying it by any means possible. That first dent is only the first little incident that eventually sees its roof being cut off, its losing a door and, finally, just collapsing as he gets close to capturing the Bandit. The sight of Junior Justice holding on to his father’s hat with one hand and one of the patrol car’s doors with the other is truly a sight to behold.
Equally, though, the charm of the film, as well as being in Reed, Field and Reynolds’ performances, is in the dialogue, some of it improvised by Jackie Gleason whilst on set. If Sally Field and Burt Reynolds take care of romance – their moment in a quiet park with Reynolds’ Stetson hanging on the aerial is a sweet little aside – it’s Jackie Gleason and Mike Henry who get most of the laughs. Rich in every cliche as a bent, southern cop, Gleason chews up the dialogue as much as Clifton James does as Sheriff J.W. Pepper does in Live And Let Die does tobacco, almost his every sentence ending with a ‘sumbitch!” Particular highlights are Junior’s, “My hat blew off, Daddy”, which draws a, “I hope your goddamned head was in it!” from Gleason. Followed with a, “There is no way, no way you could come from my loins. As soon as I get home, the first thing I’m gonna do is punch your momma in the mouth!” you do tend towards feeling a little sorry for Junior, his being called a pile of monkey-nuts or a dumb sumbitch for wanting a slush puppy doesn’t stop him loving his daddy, running after him as the film ends, shouting, “Daddy! Wait! Who’s gonna hold your hat?”
That ending, though, is a classic. So exciting as, four miles to go, Bandit has a moment of doubt before Snowman tells him not to worry – “We just gonna introduce ’em to the boy. So move over a little bit good buddy, ’cause the Snowman is comin’ through” – and pulls in with the crates of Coors to honour their bet. The world may be closing in on the Bandit but they make it, confident enough to make a double-or-nothing bet with Big and Little Enos and, just stopping to say goodbye to Buford T. Justice, leave this 96 minutes of car chases, love and friendship for an eighteen-hour round-trip to Boston to pick up some clam chowder. What’s more, I think they’ll do it.
Very early in my time at this site, I picked up the old release in a supermarket sale and in spite of having paid not a great deal for it, was still disappointed to see it pan-and-scanned into 4:3. This Special Edition makes good on its promise to have the picture remastered for although it’s evident that there wasn’t a great deal of money behind the movie, Smokey And The Bandit still looks great as presented here. Slightly soft and looking a little washed out, that’s not, I would think, the fault of Universal as they’ve done a sterling job here, bringing it to DVD in 1.85:1 and having it look better than I’ve ever seen it before. It has, though, always been fairly grainy – that doesn’t change here – and in spite of rough-and-ready nature of the production ensuring that it’s not the best looking of films, this DVD looks good nonetheless.
Even better, though, is the Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks that have been included. Both are superb and it sounds unlike I have ever heard it before. The Trans Am sounds great throughout but it’s the truck that opens up the soundtrack, with it now rumbling from the front to the rear speakers so clearly that I’m half-convinced that new sound effects have been added. Certainly, Smokey And The Bandit now sounds superb and is a pleasure to listen to.
Snowman, What’s Your 20? (8m17s): Introduced by Steve ‘Big Dog’ Cronin, who owns a truck identical to the one driven by Snowman, this feature explains how best, should you find yourself at the wheel of a Freightliner Classic, to talk in the language of truckers over a CB radio. Of course, we did have CB for a very short time in the UK but thanks to a meddling Conservative government the illegal and very cool AM radios were phased out in favour of a legal and rather straight FM variant. All, I’m sure, with the intention of having GCHQ listen in on conversations between a spotty boy calling himself Dennis The Menace and an older and slightly older, though none more sophisticated, girl called Foxy Lady. None of which didn’t do The Man very much good come the era of warehouse parties and illegal raves. Although, if you’re out there Foxy Lady, I would still like to meet…
Loaded Up And Truckin’ (20m00s): Featuring archive interviews with Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason as well as new ones with Reynolds, Paul Williams and Hal Needham, this is a good-natured look back at the making of Smokey And The Bandit and what little legacy it has. Williams has aged well but while Needham has simply let himself grow old gracefully, poor old Burt now looks very odd indeed. In fact, his left eye appears to have a job just staying open and you have to feel a little sorry for him (and his cheeks) as his face cracks into a laugh as he remembers the filming of Smokey And The Bandit and how successful it became. Needham, though, is great fun, remembering much about the film and the manner in which it was shot.
You still don’t get a free pair of cowboy boots and Stetson with every purchase – Special Edition, huh? – but it’s enough that Smokey And The Bandit now looks and sounds as good as it ought to. The extras are nice but it’s really the film that matters here and it’s a great one, maybe not much more than a car chase around the southern states of the US but what a chase! Teenage fantasies – those that don’t involve nudity, gunfire and martial arts, at least – don’t come much better than when the Bandit clears a collapsed bridge and Hal Needham gives us a shot of his Pontiac Trans Am hanging in the air. As beautiful as sunrise…in its own way. Add to that a cast barely able to contain their enjoyment of driving fast, firing off great one-liners and liberally insulting one another and Smokey And The Bandit leaves as one of the really great, really dumb movies. Expect Wal-Mart stores in Texas to sell out swiftly as the unofficial film of the southern states finally gets the DVD release that it deserves.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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