Friday, August 7, 2009

Film Friday: Smokey And The Bandit (1977)

Smokey and the Bandit is an historical marker. It marks the birth of the New South and its reintroduction back into the United States. Indeed, this film introduced America to the new South. That may sound like a lot for a seemingly simple comedy, but it’s true.

** spoiler alert **

Plot
You all know the plot. Big Enos Burdett bets Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) that he and his friend Cletus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) can’t drive from Atlanta to Texarkana, Texas and back in 28 hours. The catch: they need to bring back a truckload of Coors beer, which could not legally be brought east of the Mississippi at that time -- this was bootlegging. As they undertake this journey, with Reynolds driving the now famous 1977 black Pontiac Trans Am, Reynolds picks up hitchhiker Sally Field, who has run away from her own wedding, causing the father of the groom, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), to chase them across state lines.
Southern History
Before we discuss the movie, let’s do a quick history lesson. Following the civil war and reconstruction the South remained an economic and social backwater for more than a hundred years. In the 1930s, the federal government created the Tennessee Valley Authority to kickstart the region, but little else made an impact. Indeed, until the 1980s, the South remained largely rural and agricultural.

In the 1950s/1960s, racial issues boiled over, leading to a series of famous legal disputes, protest marches, and massive federal intervention. Hollywood used these events in films to tar the South. From Sidney Poitier facing down racist cops In The Heat Of The Night (1967), to Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) exposing the plantation-like prison system of Louisiana, to Gregory Peck’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) highlighting racism in the southern legal system, Hollywood repeatedly painted the South as backwards, racist, and reactionary, and southerners as racist hillbillies. Even Burt Reynolds' prior movies painted unflattering pictures of the South, with The Longest Yard (1974) showing a corrupt and violent Florida prison and Deliverance (1972) giving us the immortal line with which many northerners continue to brand southerners: “squeal like a pig boy.”
Introducing The New South
Smokey and the Bandit changed all of that. Indeed, Bandit was the first major film to come out of Hollywood that showed modern southerners in a positive light. Southerners are shown to be friendly and multiracial. They have black sheriffs, truckers and store owners, and the good guys interact with them in a friendly and polite manner. There is no hint of the prior racial problems, except through Buford T. Justice, who is meant to lampoon the old image of the South, and who in fact, wonders aloud what happened to the South he knew. Women too are shown in the workforce, not sitting at home with servants. There is even an Asian trucker. You see southerners engaged in everyday life, doing the same things as everyone else in the country, e.g. attending youth football games. Not once do you see a toothless, hillbilly rapist.

One moment perfectly sums up the message of the film. As they stop for a rest, Sally Field, who plays a pleasant but condescending northerner, quizzes Reynolds about his knowledge of theater culture. He knows none of the names she mentions, which disappoints her -- her point: the South is not as sophisticated as the North. But Reynolds responds by asking Field if she knows various famous country music singers. She does not. He then states:
“When you tell somebody something, it depends on what part of the country you're standing in as to just how dumb you are.”
The message: the South doesn’t have to be the North to be just as good, and the North should stop looking down on the South.

Yet, if history hadn’t been changing to back up the film’s portrayal of the South, the film would have been forgotten as nonsense. And history was changing. Consider that less than a year before its release, the nation elected the first President from the deep South since Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency with Lincoln’s assassination 112 years prior. And while Jimmy Carter ultimately would prove to be a disaster, the image of the new South was born. Gone was the rural land dotted with sharecroppers. In its place, southern states deregulated and courted foreign manufacturers and their economies were booming. FedEx opened in Memphis. Trucking companies sprang up across the region. Car makers followed. Atlanta became a megalopolis. The economic backwater of United States became an economic dynamo, and people flocked south.

In fact, only a few years later, Bob McDill would write “Song of the South”, later re-recorded by Alabama, with the lyrics: “gone, gone with the wind, ain’t nobody lookin’ back again” -- a reference to the South moving beyond the civil war culture that dominated the region for more than 100 years. Bandit marked and announced this change in perception and attitude. It is no coincidence that it took two southerners to make this film -- Reynolds was from Georgia/Florida and director Hal Needham from Tennessee.
The End of Rural America
Another interesting aspect of this film, is the divergence between the rural roads and the interstate shown in Bandit. Why is that? Because part of what gave regions like the South such mystery to outsiders was that they were generally impenetrable, except by rural routes that no sane outsider would traverse. But by the 1970s, the country was completing the National Interstate System, which opened up these regions to the rest of the country.

In many ways, Bandit was a swan song to the era when the country was divided into tiny fiefs, each acting as its own country, with its own set of rules and its own law enforcement/border control. This era ended with the interstate system. And places like the centers of small towns and hidden country roads and single car bridges, where the chase ended up whenever the Bandit ran out of interstate, would become things unknown to modern cross-country travelers, who rarely leave the interstate. Even the very idea that it would take 28 hours to get from Atlanta to Texarkana and back is laughable to modern audiences, as they can now make the trip on I-20 in record time. Moreover, Bandit gives us the last gasp for the days you when could outrun the cops. There were no spike strips, there were no helicopters, and few police had CBs. It was mano e mano on the roads. All that changed dramatically in the coming years, as communications gear made it possible for police departments to coordinate.
The Struggle Against The Glitterati
Bandit was originally released in New York City, the heart of the anti-South, by the same studio that opposed the use of a country music soundtrack. It flopped. The New York Times dismissed the film as "a movie for audiences capable of slavering all over a Pontiac Trans Am, 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs, dismembered police cruisers and motorcycles.” You can almost hear the words “dirty hillbillies.” The LA Times was both dismissive and alarmist: “A few years from now, when the freeways are silent except for the gasping of the bicyclers, we will all gaze in misty-eyed nostalgia at an antique and improbable 1977 item called Smokey and the Bandit.”

But Needham fought back against the studio and demanded that it be released in the rest of the country. “I made this movie for the South, Midwest and Northwest. . . so why don’t we take the damn thing somewhere where it was made for.” He won his argument and the film was rolled out in those regions. By the end of the year, it was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only Star Wars. To date, the film has grossed more than $126 million. After his success, Needham took out an ad in the trade papers quoting his negative reviews and showing a wheel barrel filled with money. Southern boy makes good.

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24 comments:

ScottDS said...

Guilty as charged: I've never seen this film. I plan to rectify that soon. I've seen it parodied before (a non sequitur gag in an episode of Jon Lovitz' animated series The Critic comes to mind) but that doesn't exactly count! Great analysis as always. off to Netflix...

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You're young, so we can forgive you not having seen it. But then you do live in Florida and that is Burt Reynolds country... hmm. Maybe you're in Gator country -- he was Seminole I think.

Bandit has been parodied a lot and copied even more. But it's never really been duplicated.

Let me know what you think after you see it. You should enjoy it, it's a fun movie.

P.S. How was your NASA adventure?

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Another part of Southern culture which I used to abhor and now admire is why so many great NASCAR racers come from the rural areas of the South. It pretty much started with the moonshiners running from the revenooers. Anybody who can build an engine and drive a car fast enough to escape the federal taxing authorities is a hero in my book.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, that's exactly what gave NASCAR it's start -- moonshining. Today, NASCAR is the most watched sport in the country and has spread to most parts of the country. I'm not a big fan of NASCAR, but I understand the appeal. Bandit doesn't show NASCAR, but it does show truck racing, and the beginning and the ending center around the Southern Classic.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - thanks. :-) I'm saving the NASA business for the next open thread but to sum up: so far, so good.

I'm from south Florida, born and raised. I believe Burt Reynolds went to FSU (as did I for a crappy year), home of the Seminoles. And according to Wikipedia, he also attended Palm Beach Junior College, since renamed Palm Beach Community College (as did I for a much better year). We also have the Burt Reynolds & Friends Museum but I've never been there.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I look forward to reading about it. The next open thread should be Monday.

So you're following in Burt's footsteps? Cool. Maybe someday you will have your own museum! :-)

CrispyRice said...

I sometimes can't help but wonder, Andrew, are you watching the same movies I am? Because I don't see half of what you do in them. ;)

Interesting analysis. I took a detour singing a bit at Convoy (We got a big old convoy, rockin' through the night!) but isn't that the point of a roadtrip?

Did they really think the interstate system was going to flop? Wow.

One more note - I drove a few years ago in Montana, when, for awhile, they had their daytime speed limit set as "reasonable and prudent." Lemme tell ya, I was a much better driver when I could pay full attention to the road and not constantly wonder if there was a cop over every hill. Speed limits have their place, but there's also plenty of places where they could be done away with. (I'm looking at you, western Kansas...)

Tennessee Jed said...

Couple or three of thoughts, here:

1) your description of this film and the audience reaction pretty much typifies the cultural/political divide in the country today.

2) exempting Scott who is virtually still a baby, who remembers Dan August? Probably the only reason I do was I was working as a summer intern at the Philadelphia local ABC affiliate. I was writing a handout promotional sheet touting the new fall ABC lineup in either 1969 or 1970. That was my first impression of Burt, who, as I recall had a minor career as a bench warming defensive back at Florida State.

3) My most recent remembrance of Burt was as a kind of unsung recurring guest shot in the television show "Ed." (the bowling alley owner/lawyer.) He played the father of Ed's best friend. Burt managed to burn down his son's house trying to deep fry a Thanksgiving turkey.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed,

Reynolds was supposed to have been an all star halfback until he injured his knee, ending his college career.

He was a huge star in the 1970s, but his star faded in the 1980s. His career had a resurrgence of sorts in the 1990s, with Evening Shade and Boogie Nights, but I think he's only done supporting roles since. I never watched Ed, so I'm not sure if he was in that or not.

On the comparison to today, I think that the current divide is driven by the divide between the "NASCAR set" and the "elites" (although that is a bit of an oversimplification).

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, You just have to look a little closer. It's all there to be seen. Just connect the dots.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed,

I would add that I think that the New South culture that is on display in Bandit was so successful that it essentially became the culture of all of middle-American, and that this is the culture that you will find throughout America today once you get outside of the big cities.

CrispyRice said...

Oh, I'm not saying it's not all there, Andrew! I just don't see it until it's pointed out. I guess I'm a bit superficial when it comes to movies. :D Your analyses are always very interesting to me.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - so no remembrance of Dan August, I take it. That show maybe lasted only the first season, and may well have been his first role of any significance. I kind of remember him as playing a deputy sheriff or something like that

I mostly liked Burt. While hardly the most versatile actor ever, he was good as a macho action guy (my favorite was Sharkey's machine) and particularly as he got older, he could deliver dead pan comedic lines pretty well. The first few scenes from the longest yard were a classic. although as you pointed out, it was another stereotype, it was a pretty good movie.

I always felt badly that he had that very public and painful break-up with Lonnie Anderson. I'm not excusing him, but it was sad nonetheless.

I also agree with you completely on the culture of the "new" south pretty much being the culture of all rural America today.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying the analyses. Maybe it just takes an unbalanced mind to see these things? :-)


Jed, I'm sorry, I thought it, but I forgot to write it. Yes, I don't know Dan August.

My first recollection of Reynolds probably was The Longest Yard, or maybe Smokey and the Bandit. In either event, I really liked him at the time and I think he's turned into quite a decent actor.

The Loni Anderson thing struck me as sad as well. And I've seen in interviews that he had some sort of illness at that time too, but I've never been able to find out what it was.

On The Longest Yard, don't get me wrong -- I really like that movie. It's well done and it's super fun (the remake stinks though). But it did fit right in with the older view of the South as hopelessly backwards and racist.

StanH said...

Andrew: As a Southerner I’ve never thought about “Smokey and the Bandit” as a seminal moment in Southern evolution : ) When I saw the movie at the theater in ’77 I didn’t like it much, but it did grow on me as I watched reruns on HBO. As you stated in your post the movie we in Atlanta were getting into that year was “Star Wars.” Great effort and a completely different way for me to look at “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Joel Farnham said...

AndrewPrice, your arguements are compelling. But.......I think that it was a little more of both.

Yes, it did re-introduce the South to rest of the country, but the rest of the country is already like the South. It was more a meeting of friends, who didn't know they were friends until they met. Maybe I said it wrong?

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, You probably didn't notice because you grew up in the South. If you lived in other parts of the country, I assure you that the South was a foreign land -- still is if you ask people in places like the North East.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, At the time, I don't think the regions were as similiar in mindset as they are today. You had very distinct cultures in the North East, in the rust bowl, in the South, in Texas, in the West, in the Northwest and in California. Even southern Florida wasn't anything like the rest of the South.

But like American always does, we tend to take the best parts of what we find and toss out the worst and then move on. And in this case, I think that much of what the new South represented was very attractive to people all over the country, and it formed a new culture that his been adopted all over the country, outside of the big coastal cities.

CrisD said...

Dude,
I am living in the South now, well, North "by God" Carolina, and you are sooo right!!!

Except when I saw the movie I was in jr. high and all I thought was Burt Reynolds was hot (and get rid of Sally Fields stealing my man!!!)

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, LOL! I've been through the Carolinas and I think that many Northerns would be amazed to see how modern they are. And talk about beautiful country! Not to mention, that's where all our furniture comes from these days. :-)

Wasn't Reynolds voted the sexist man alive in the 1970s?

StanH said...

Andrew: I would go North in the ‘70s and ‘80s NYC, Philly, etc. …now I understand why I felt like an exhibit. LOL! I did notice however the change in demographic, Atlanta in the ‘60s was a city of less than half million we’re now a 5.5 Million. I would guess that half or more are not Southern. My older brother had that exact car in 1975 black Trans AM, the car was fast, and the chicks liked it. Always good work at Commentarama and thought provoking.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Stan, I always like hearing that people enjoy what we're doing!

I wasn't driving yet at the time of the Trans Am, but it was huge! Everybody that I knew wanted one -- or a Corvette.

Speaking of being an exhibit, when I went to college, in the Northeast, and people would find out that I came from Colorado, they would actually ask me either "do you live on a farm" or "do you live on a fort." And they were serious! LOL!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your take on this movie. I never thought about it in those terms, but having read this I now see it. I remember watching this movie in the theater and just loving it. I was 14 at the time and wanted a Trans Am really bad. I ended up getting a 1981 Camaro instead (what a sweet car).

Anyway, I'm from coastal NC and there are a few movies with the South as a centerpiece that I really enjoy: My Cousin Vinny ("What's a grit?") and Doc Hollywood to name a couple.

Anonymous said...

When she asked if bandit knew the names of the theatre culture, she was not trying to make a point of " the South is not as sophisticated as the
North." As u say. It was her trying to find things they have in common.

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