The late 70s and early 80s saw a wave of car chasing, barroom brawling, crowd-pleasers that ruled the box office, and Smokey and the Bandit (the second-highest grossing movie of 1977, after Star Wars) led the pack. Its title cannily referenced the CB radio craze (yes, that was a thing) and it gave Burt Reynolds his biggest hit. The wise-cracking, law-breaking hero, Bo “Bandit” Darville, would become his calling card from that point on… for better and for worse. At the time, Bandit looked like an agent of chaos. However, casting a long glance back at this late 70s icon, it’s possible to see that Bandit is just a guy, sitting in a black Trans Am, asking everyone to think he’s a rebel.
70s cinema had a masculinity crisis brewing, with feminism going mainstream and traditional male genres (particularly cowboy and war movies) falling out of favor. Contemporary actors, such as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, didn’t fit the mold of the macho man, even when they appeared in action films. Ironically, Reynolds’ best role had been one that perfectly elucidated the dilemma. In John Boorman’s Vietnam War metaphor, Deliverance, he plays a survivalist poseur who leads a group into the wilderness but is forced to cede power to his sensitive best friend (Jon Voight) when they run into real danger. The perceived issue was clear enough, in the wake of social and political upheaval, old school macho attitudes were no longer a solution.
Hollywood consequently had a problem placing tough guy stars like Reynolds who were never going to fit into stories like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor which required the male lead to show emotional vulnerability. The solution? Create entertainment that looked contemporary in terms of the anti-establishment vibe of cooler films, but which suited the hypermasculine style of certain stars and slyly pandered to traditional values. Enter Smokey and the Bandit.
The film follows the antics of Bandit as he takes a bet from “Big Enos” and “Little Enos” Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) to transport a truckload of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta in just 28 hours. Hitting the road with truck-driver friend, Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed), Bandit soon picks up a runaway bride, Carrie (Sally Field), and incurs the wrath of “Smokey Bear,” Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), whose son Carrie was supposed to wed. Along the way, Bandit breaks speed limits as he races to multiple state lines, cracks wise at every opportunity, and displays “easy charm,” which in this context involves laughing loudly and hitting on women. Troopers exist to be outrun or outsmarted (usually with the help of accomplices on the CB radio) and Smokey’s cruiser gets slowly demolished.
Throughout Smokey and the Bandit, Reynold’s character is framed as an anti-establishment figure via the iconography of the time. At the end of the 60s, Easy Rider had established the look of a modern-day seeker/outsider: he lived on his motorbike and in the open spaces of America, wore a combination of hippy shirts and ironic headgear (Dennis Hopper’s cowboy hat, Peter Fonda’s Captain America helmet), and obeyed no authority. Bandit is also a wanderer who exists in his car, wears loose shirts and a cowboy hat, and is no follower of rules. However, digging a little deeper, it’s clear that he couldn’t be further from the counter-culture ideals embodied by Easy Rider’s protagonists.
Bandit’s mission isn’t one of self-discovery (or even discovery of America), but rather a quest to rake in a cool $80,000 from the Burdettes. His disregard for authority is limited to breaking speed rules and state laws about food and beverage transportation. He destroys Smokey’s cruiser (a symbol of authoritarianism if there ever was one) and soundly beats him, but then undermines it at the end of the film by cluing the cop in to his location so the chase can go on.
Bandit’s final decision to double down on the Burdettes’ bet and his (somewhat affectionate) come-on to Smokey promises another cycle of risk and reward, where chaser and chased are just two components in a capitalist construct. Tellingly, Bandit and Carrie have become partners (romantically and economically) by this point. Their next challenge is to transport clam chowder rather than booze, indicative of our hero settling into a normative relationship as alcohol (whether drunk heavily or transported illegally) is equated with rebellion in the film. Smokey and the Bandit begins to look more like the most conservative of cowboy movies, where the hero is empowered by his outsider status to commit transgressive acts, but only in support of the status quo.
The characters who surround Bandit also function to disguise the cracks in his rebel credentials. Smokey isn’t just an authority figure, he’s a permanently frustrated pressure cooker, liable to boil over with rage at any moment. His son is in a state of arrested development, a grown man who still uses the word “daddy” and needs help with his zipper. Cledus is a redneck whose most loving relationships are his big rig and bloodhound. And Carrie is just too uptight (given the CB handle “Frog” because she’s so jumpy), a typical stereotype of the time suggesting that she is sexually frigid, in flight from the marital bed (a problem that will be resolved in her pseudo-marriage to Bandit at the end). Amidst this cast of “colorful” characters, how couldn’t Bandit seem like the wittiest and most free-spirited person around? He’s the only one in the film allowed to be.
Mainstream audiences further lapped up this sanitized version of rebellion in Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run, where Reynolds’ character, JJ McClure, is just Bandit by another name. The Cannonball Run allowed a whole host of aging stars (including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and Roger Moore) to glom some anti-establishment cred by breaking road rules on screen (along with a lot of racial stereotyping and sexism). In one meta sequence, they even get into a fight with a motorcycle gang led by Peter Fonda. Clint Eastwood, who made the remarkable westerns Bronco Billy and The Outlaw Josey Wales around the time, had much bigger hits with Any Which Way But Loose and its sequel: knockabout comedies in which he plays a bare-knuckle boxer who lives with an orangutan (both of which are illegal). Only Sam Peckinpah’s CB-epic, Convoy, had more grit, with the protagonists cutting wild in response to police intimidation. “Piss on you, and piss on your law,” Kris Kristofferson‘s “Rubber Duck” snarls at his antagonist sheriff in a manner that would make Bandit blush.
Ultimately, the traffic-infraction-as-rebellion and wise-cracking of Bandit started to look passé as the 80s ramped up with more dynamic action comedies from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Cannonball Run II was considered a flop in 1984 by making half the money of the original. Smokey and the Bandit III (in which Reynolds only cameos) was a total bust. However, it is noteworthy for the plot in which Smokey effectively becomes Bandit by taking on a challenge from the Burdettes, and Bandit (now actually Cledus pretending to be Bandit… don’t ask) does the chasing. The fact that the “establishment” antagonist can swap places so fluidly with the “anti-establishment” protagonist only underlines the fact that, rather than being diametrically opposed, they have shared values in the capitalist play of these entertainments.
So, what of Bandit at 45? He doesn’t look as cool, funny, or anarchic as he did in 1977, but the film is still a cop-car wreckin’ good time, especially in comparison to the sequels and rip-offs. Few actors were better than Reynolds at playing a complete horse’s ass and making it likable. Bandit’s non-rebellious rebellion, meanwhile, has enjoyed a much longer life. Subsequent figures (both on-screen and off) have taken on the words and imagery of the agitator whilst offering more of the same, just artfully repackaged.
Happy birthday, Bandit!
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