‘I’m gonna barbecue your ass!’

It’s hard to explain the popularity of a movie like Smokey and the Bandit.

In one form, it was just escapist trash, no different than The Fast and the Furious or National Treasure. For an 11-year-old boy, however, it was about the coolest movie in the world. Fast cars. Trucks. Cops. Cursing. Burt Reynolds, who basically played an 11-year-old adult. And it was a huge hit.

Watching it last evening, it struck me how much a product of its time it is. It was the late 1970s and light, escapist movies were coming into vogue. The mainstreaming of the auteur movement in cinema had peaked and was rapidly in decline. Jaws and Star Wars had ushered in the popcorn movie.

Smokey and the Bandit is a pure popcorn movie, requiring not an iota of thought. For the uninitiated, Burt Reynolds is the Bandit, who is basically a bootlegger. He and has running mate, Cletus, are roped into a bet which says they can’t run a truckload of Coors Beer(!) from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours. (This was back when Coors was legendary in the East because you couldn’t get it there.) Cletus drives the truck. Reynolds runs interference in a black T-top Pontiac TransAm. That’s the plot. They race to Texas and race back, dodging cops along the way, including one Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason).

Gleason plays in an inept, racist Southern sheriff. Reed, also a country music performer, sings. Sally Field shows up to sit in Reynolds’ car and be the spunky girl. (This was before she became the serious actress.)

The real stars of the film are the CB radios used by Reynolds and Reed to talk to each other, which sparked a craze of CB users and films about them, as well as a wave of southern-fried movies and TV shows, such as “The Dukes of Hazzard.” As hard as it may be to believe now, the idea of drivers being able to talk to each other was radical and exciting. Now, cities pass laws against it.

In that sense, the movie is the forerunner of modern films involving technology, including movies where the Net and cellphones play a prominent role (and which are almost always terrible). In fact, citizen band radios were an early form of social networking. Think about it. Users had “handles” like usernames that they used to communicate with people in a tight community.

According to Wikipedia, Alfred Hitchcock confessed that Smokey and the Bandit was one of his guilty pleasures.

Men of a certain age still probably look longingly when an old black TransAm rolls by.


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