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It seems like a hundred years ago when redneck bad boys were all the rage, Burt Reynolds was a top star, CB radios were the hot technology with phrases like "10-4" and "good buddy" as familiar parlance, and movie action sequences were achieved by daring stunt men in souped-up cars without benefit of digital enhancement. But it was actually only 25 years ago when Smokey and the Bandit was a runaway favorite at the drive-in and the second highest grossing film of the year after Star Wars (1977). The success of the film catapulted Reynolds to the number one box office spot and inspired a string of similar movies and TV shows (not to mention igniting a short-lived CB trend among non-truckers).
The plot of Smokey and the Bandit is simple enough and really just an excuse for fast-paced comic action and a crowd-pleasing flouting of the law. Two truckers, Bandit (Reynolds) and Cledus (Jerry Reed), accept a dare to retrieve a truckload of beer from Texas and return it within a specified amount of time. The pair gets the beer, but on the way back, they pick up a hitchhiker, Carrie, who just left her groom, Junior, at the altar. It turns out Junior is the son of Portague County Sheriff Buford T. Justice, so father and son set out on a high-speed pursuit across the Southeast to catch Bandit and company. The success of the film spawned two hit sequels in 1980 and 1983 and a number of similar movies, including Hooper (1978), The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), and Cannonball Run II (1984), all starring Reynolds and directed by Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham. Sam Peckinpah did a more dramatic, violent variation on the CB scene in his trucker movie Convoy (1978), and Jonathan Demme gentle, appealing comedy about the CB craze, Handle with Care (1977, aka Citizen's Band), followed this picture by about four months. The movie also gave rise to the popular TV action-comedy series The Dukes of Hazard (1979-1985). Needham also made a series of TV movies in 1994 with Brian Bloom as Bandit.
Smokey and the Bandit was the directorial debut for former stuntman Needham. It was also the first of nine collaborations with his good friend Burt Reynolds, with diminishing degrees of success. A native of Waycross, Ga., and a former Florida State University football star until an injury ended his athletic career, Reynolds had been kicking around Hollywood almost 20 years before this picture, first as a TV actor. He got his first major break in John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) when proposed stars Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart each backed out of the project because of the hazards of filming on the Chatooga River. He then found his niche as a tough guy with a sense of humor, and began honing the "good-ol-boy" image that would serve him so well in Smokey with roles in such movies as White Lightning (1973), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975, on which Needham served as stunt coordinator), and Gator (1976, directed by Reynolds).
The picture also stars Sally Field - before her Oscars for Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984) - as the runaway bride, an updated down-home take on characters in similar predicaments in 1930s screwball comedies. She and Reynolds had a much-publicized love affair around this time (It was enough of a threat to cause Reynolds' future wife, Loni Anderson, to talk him out of co-starring with Field in the comedy Soapdish in 1991). The part of Carrie earned her a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
Comic legend Jackie Gleason took on the role of Buford T. Justice, the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman known to Burt Reynolds' father, who was once Chief of Police of Jupiter, Fla. Gleason and country singer Jerry Reed, who contributed to the soundtrack, returned for both the sequels, but Field came back only for the first one. Thanks largely to the success of the Bandit movies, Reed won a People's Choice Award in 1979 as Favorite Motion Picture Supporting Actor. The jilted groom was played by former movie Tarzan Mike Henry, who must have been delighted to be out of the jungle and in the backwoods. During his short tenure as the Ape Man in the late 60s, Henry was bitten in the face by a chimp (requiring 20 stitches) and suffered from dysentery, an ear infection, and a liver ailment. After three Tarzan films, he sued the producer for maltreatment, abuse, and working conditions detrimental to his health and welfare, and turned down the TV series that eventually starred Ron Ely.
Atlanta-area residents may be able to spot some familiar locales in the movie. It was shot in and around the towns of Riverdale and Jonesboro, Ga., as well as in West Palm Beach, Fla., near Reynolds' old stomping grounds. Though one may not think of it today as an Oscar contender, Smokey and the Bandit earned a nomination for Best Film Editing due to the complicated action sequences.
Director: Hal Needham
Producers: Mort Engelberg, Robert L. Levy
Screenplay: Hal Needham, Robert L. Levy, James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Editing: Walter Hannemann, Angelo Ross
Art Direction: Mark W. Mansbridge
Original Music: Bill Justis, Jerry Reed
Cast: Burt Reynolds (Bandit), Sally Field (Carrie), Jerry Reed (Cledus), Jackie Gleason (Sheriff Justice), Mike Henry (Junior), Paul Williams (Little Enos), Pat McCormick (Big Enos).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon