If you’ve been following my monthly movie reviews for a while, you’ve noticed the word iconic pop up quite a bit. It’s a seminal word for me, one that I’ve used to denote a superlative movie, a stand out performance, or a momentous scene. More than once, I’ve also used it in conjunction with a memorable vehicle that managed to burn its visage into my, and the collective audience’s, memory.
Perhaps at no time in any of my columns has the word been more apropos in its usage than in describing the four-wheeled star of this month’s iteration of Rob’s Car Movie Review. The car I’m talking about is the unforgettable, dusky “Screaming Chicken” in the film Smokey and the Bandit!
Produced by Rastar Pictures, and distributed by Universal Studios in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit was directed by legendary Hollywood stuntman, Hal Needham. Despite featuring popular stars Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and supporting actors Jackie Gleason and country music star Jerry Reed, the execs at Universal were so convinced that the film was destined to be a flop that the promotional budget afforded the film was virtually nothing.
There must’ve been some red faces in Studio City when the film became a “sleeper” hit, grossing $126,737,428 in domestic box office receipts on its way to becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year, bested only by Star Wars!
The film begins as Bo “Bandit” Darville (Reynolds), a legendary, retired trucker, is propositioned by a father/son pair of tycoons to ship 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta (in violation of the liquor laws of the day) in 28 hours for a large party the pair are hosting. The payday? A whopping $80,000!
Enlisting the help of his trucker friend Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Reed) the two hatch a plan where the latter will haul the beer in his big-rig, while The Bandit drives in a fast car as a decoy for the police.
Along the way to Atlanta at top speed, The Bandit picks up a hitchhiking bride, Carrie (Field), who has ditched her groom on their wedding day. It just so happens that the groom is the son of the local Sherriff, Buford T. Justice (Gleason), who is intent on getting the bride back on the altar. Justice joins a fray of law enforcement officers in a wild pursuit across four states, determined to deny our heroes from reaching Atlanta.
Even today, it’s easy to see why Smokey and the Bandit became the phenomenon it was. There are solid performances throughout, especially by Reynolds, who plays The Bandit like a cool, heroic outlaw from a Western. The chemistry between Reynolds and Field is palpable (they were a couple in real life) and helps frame the pair as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.
While not exactly The Iliad, the script is nonetheless a good example of archetype storytelling, and takes its time developing the love relationship between the two leads. Also well done is the film’s pacing, which is at times frenetic, and in others laconic, but is always well metered to keep the viewer engaged. Since the film was directed by one of Hollywood’s leading stunt men, the chase sequences, jumps and car crashes are all naturally first rate.
But the true standout of Smokey and the Bandit is the car driven by The Bandit, the iconic black and gold 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Well, at least that’s what you saw in the movie. Wanting to promote the aesthetically modified 1977 model, but lacking cars owing to delays in production start-up, GM modified four 1976 Trans Ams with ’77 spec bodywork and decals for the film.
The cars used in the movie were all stock, equipped with the 400ci V8 engine mated to automatic transmissions, except for the car that performed the bridge jump sequence, which was fitted with a more powerful Chevy engine and a manual transmission.
All four cars were trashed during filming; the bridge jump claimed one car, jumping the fence onto the football field killed another and driving through ditches and down embankments destroyed the other two. When it came to shooting the last scene in the film, no working vehicle was left, so one of the wrecks had to be pushed onto the set.
Pontiac was apparently not pleased with Needham when the cars were returned to them, as the contract they had made stipulated that the vehicles were to be returned in working order, but any bitterness was tempered when Pontiac sold a record 93,341 Trans Ams in the wake of the movie’s success.
Perhaps the studio executives should have had more faith in the film they had all but disowned. With a sterling cast, superb action sequences, and yes, that iconic Trans Am, there’s a lot to love. And love it I still do. I give Smokey and the Bandit seven and a half out of ten pistons.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.