Friday at the Movies: Smokey and the Bandit

By: Bridget Clerkin April 20, 2018
Butter the popcorn and recline for a trip into cinematic car chase history with "Smokey and the Bandit."

Is there anything better than doing what you love?

Yes—yes, there is.

It’s when what you love to do is race cool cars at top speeds and see how many vehicle chases, crashes, and stunts you can cram into a movie.

At least one man in history has lived this dream: Hal Needham, writer and director of the 1977 classic Smokey and the Bandit.

Needham began his Hollywood career as a well-respected stuntman, learning how to make actors look way more badass than they actually are under the tutelage of none other than the stunt double of The Duke himself, John Wayne.

And he began his days as director with a clear ode to that death-defying background, essentially creating a film-based tribute to mashing up metal.

We here at DMV.ORG salute the idea of reveling so hard in what you love—especially when what you love is the sheer exhilaration of vehicular destruction—so we’ve dedicated our latest "Friday at the Movies" to dissecting Smokey and the Bandit, in all of its eastern and downward-bound glory. And of course, no review would be complete without a healthy dollop of judgey-ness. Read ahead to see where Needham’s masterpiece comes in on our patented DMV.ORG Scale of Movie Greatness.

The Scene

The entire movie hinges on a wager that Bo “the Bandit” Danville can make the 660-some-odd-mile trek from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia in just 28 hours.

The proposed southern sprint is far from a pure act of hubris. There are serious matters at hand—like beer, and the consumption of it by millionaires.

Among the myriad confusing trends of the ‘70s was a national preference for Coors, which was considered at the time a premium brand. Due to the unpasteurized nature of the beer, and the lack of sufficiently refrigerated trucks at the time, the beverage was outlawed in all but 11 states—including everywhere east of the Mississippi River. (This isn’t movie plot; this was real life until The Year of Our Lord 1981.)

Going without a celebratory brew at the conclusion of an Atlanta-based truck rodeo was too much for wealthy southern gentlemen Big and Little Enos Burdette to bear, so the father-and-son pair made the speed demon proposal to Bandit, played by Burt Reynolds, and his driving partner, Cledus “Snowman” Snow, played by Jerry Reed.

At stake if the duo were to complete the run in time: a cool $80,000.

The idea was for Snowman to pilot a big rig stocked with 400 cases of the contraband alcohol, while Bandit drove ahead in a flashy ride (in this case, a 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am) in order to distract or divert the cops from the otherwise-inconspicuous-looking truck—and it works. Reynolds leads the police, and, most notably, Sherriff Buford T. Justice and his son, Junior—played by Jackie Gleason and Mike Henry, respectively—on a merry chase over several state lines. The film is so action-packed that it produced six straight minutes alone of crash footage.

In a script only a former stunt driver could have dreamed up, the cars skid; they swerve; they smack into each other in this 96-minute-long joyride.

And despite the experts behind the wheel, one of the most memorable scenes from the movie was truly as dangerous as it seemed. While Bandit and Carrie “the Frog”—a runaway bride played by Sally Field, who Bandit picks up when he sees her literally fleeing her wedding on the side of the road—try to outmaneuver the pursuing police, they take the road less traveled, plowing through trees and dirt until they wind up on a youth football field, where a game is going down.

The scene is shot to make it look like the players narrowly escape getting hit by the rampaging car, but the scenario was truer than many watchers realize: the film crew was unaware that the groundskeeper had recently watered the grassy field at the time of the shoot, and when the cars blasted onto the turf, they slid out of control, banking the wrong way and nearly plowing into the extras, which had rehearsed running in a different direction.

The Cars

A long-time automobile aficionado, Needham was inspired by a magazine ad to use the Trans-Am. He initially asked Pontiac for six of the vehicles for shooting, but could only wrangle three. That frugality took its toll on the cars, which Needham said could barely run by the wrap-up of filming. But the Trans-Am used in perhaps the film’s most famous stunt, jumping the Mulberry Bridge, didn’t even make it that far. Even with the assistance of a Chrysler engine installed in the vehicle to help it make the leap, the Pontiac turned to complete junk after performing the stunt.

Pontiac gave the studio two 1977 LeManses for pursuing officers Sherriff Justice and Junior to pilot, though their heavy use over the course of filming whittled that number down to one, with on-set mechanics piecing together what suitable parts were left of each to create a Franken-LeMans to get through filming. (As for the Big Rig piloted by Snowman, producers used a 1974 Kenworth W900—a model best known for its long-nose style which, quite ironically, leads to a lack of aerodynamics, making it difficult to pull off the speedy maneuvers seen in the flick, but also pretty easy for the truck to double as a cop car battering ram.)

And while the Bandit used the trusty vehicle to—SPOILER ALERT—reach Atlanta on time and make good on his bet, tragically the same cannot be said for Pontiac. Burt Reynolds has said a top executive at the automaker promised him his own Trans-Am if the movie became a success, and it assuredly did, losing out only to Star Wars that year as the nation’s top-grossing film. (1977: What a time to be alive.) Still, all that work was for naught. Even as the movie boosted Trans-Am sales, Reynolds failed to receive his own, with the company refusing even after the star himself called to enquire about the car.

The Drivers

Funnily enough, Needham frequently filled in behind the wheel for Reynolds in the past, including stunt driving for the star in the 1976 flick Gator. And while he stayed behind the director’s chair for Smokey and the Bandit, he knew enough industry insiders to ensure the innumerable chases were well-worth the watch.

No less than 22 drivers were used to create the memorable scenes, including Alan Gibbs, who filled in for Reynolds and was responsible for the spectacular bridge jump.

Stunt driver and all-around athletic powerhouse Bobby Sargent—who also had a few World Champion trophies in his name for diving and gymnastics, among other events—was another driver who doubled for Reynolds behind the wheel. And filling in for Sally Field was stuntwoman Janet Brady, herself the owner of a long list of Hollywood credits, including stunt driving in The Blues Brothers, Blade Runner, Beverly Hills Cop, and—fittingly—Speed.

The Score

1977 may have had extremely questionable taste in adult beverages, but what exceptional taste in movies!

Smokey and the Bandit was the passion project of a man who loved his cars—and crazy stunts—well, and it shows all over the screen. We at DMV.ORG award this southern tour de force an 8 out of 10, with serious points knocked off for the bad beer endorsement, but several others added back on for the realistic portrayal of how difficult it is to switch seats while driving.

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