Every trope in Smokey and the Bandit was done to death in the 70s. It’s easy to forget just how damned good Smokey and the Bandit is. It’s a car chase movie, but it’s not just a car chase movie, which elevates it above its closest competitors, Vanishing Point and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Of course Vanishing Point wasn’t just a car chase movie either, and for all that Vanishing Point was my dad’s favorite movie, it is Smokey and the Bandit that is a movie about my people.
The premise is simple. Big and Little Enos Burdette bet legendary truck driver the Bandit that he can’t get from Atlanta to Texarkana and back, picking up a load of Coors beer in Texarkana, in 28 hours. That’s 900 miles each way, with 400 illegal cases of beer in the back for the entire return trip. That’s over 60 miles an hour for over 24 hours straight over 1970s highways. The law is broken as soon as the Coors beer crosses the Arkansas state line.
Bandit recruits his old running partner Cledus to drive the truck. He will run blocker in a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (a choice that would influence many of my high school classmates). Bandit provides Cledus with the perfect explanation of his motivation:
“How come we doing this?”
“Well, why not?”
“Well, they said it couldn’t be done.”
“Well that’s the reason, son”
The trip to Texarkana is easy. Things get hairy on the way back when Bandit picks up a runaway bride, attracting the ire of a Texas sheriff who will dog him all the way back to Atlanta.
But, really, I can’t set it up any better than the movie does:
There is so much to love here.
Some of that is nostalgia, to be sure. Smokey and the Bandit was a part of the fabric of my childhood. It was nostalgia that made me stop on my way through Texarkana heading east and buy Coors. But it stands just fine on its own.
It is an extraordinarily quotable movie.
It is a fun movie.
It is a great car chase movie and great car movie.
Jackie Gleeson’s portrayal of Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Portague County is truly the pinnacle of the fat, racist, redneck Southern sheriff trope. Gleeson manages to make Sheriff Buford T. Justice menacing long after a very thorough humiliation conga begins.
It is a movie that glorifies a working class job—truck driver—back when Hollywood movies still did that sort of thing from time to time.
It is a great counterculture movie. A particular brand of counterculture: working class, Southern, 70s. The Summer of Love was long over, hippie and cowboys started going to the same music venues, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings stopped looking like insurance salesmen and grew out their hair and beards.
It is a great libertarian movie. Speed limits, alcohol laws, and interstate trucking regulations—these may or may not be practically justifiable, but they carry no moral weight in the movie. It is the Bandit, not the police officers trying to stop him, who everyone cheers on along the way. “What we’re dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.” Law enforcement, as represented by Buford T. Justice, is cruel; the law, as represented by bootlegging laws that prevent the transport of Coors east of Texas, is arbitrary; Bandit is a modern day Robin Hood not because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor but just because he is willing to flout cruel justice and arbitrary law.