How “Smokey and the Bandit” Captured the Spirit of the ’70s
When it came out in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit continued a lot of film traditions. It’s a buddy film, a road movie, a romantic comedy, a heist film… Yet it is also distinctly of its era, blending two specific 1970s phenomena: trucker music and fuel-shortage-fueled (pun intended) fantasies about high-speed driving.
Trucker music is a subgenre of country music. Its roots go back at least as far as the 1950s with the release of Terry Fell’s “Truck Drivin’ Man,” re-recorded by Buck Owens in 1965. By the late 1960s there was enough trucker music scattered across country albums that it had spawned its own sub-subgenres, like tragic trucker songs exemplified in Red Sovine’s supernatural thriller “Phantom 309” (1967) and Dick Curless’s “A Tombstone Every Mile” (1965). Truck driving music even spread overseas: it showed up in Australia in tunes like “Lights on the Hill” (1972) by Aussie cowboy Slim Dusty.
Trucker music’s profile rose at the same time psychedelic rock reached its peak, with the same artists often contributing to both trends. The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” and Little Feat’s “Willin’” (both 1970 releases), as well as Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’” (1972), blended trucker imagery and folksy apostrophes with references to drug culture.
By the late 1970s the counterculture was out and “redneck chic” was in. Average people installed CBs, the ham radio systems used by truckers, even in decidedly small rigs. Trucker music shot up the charts. “Convoy” (1975) by C.W. McCall was the epitome of the genre, a #1 pop hit that inspired a film of the same title by Sam Peckinpah in 1978.
First, though, came Smokey and the Bandit. Stuntman (and longtime Burt Reynolds friend and tenant) Hal Needham directed the film, which grossed 75 times its 4 million dollar budget. It is the story of “Bandit” (Reynolds), a reckless Trans-Am driver in a ten-gallon hat who agrees to take a shipment of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. Since Coors is illegal to take east of the Mississippi, and since a time limit on the deal necessitates traveling at illegal speeds, Bandit’s Trans-Am runs interference for the beer-laden 18-wheeler driven by his buddy “Snowman.”
Snowman is played by real-life country musician Jerry Reed, whom Needham originally planned to cast as Bandit. Reed also provides the soundtrack, which performed almost as well as the film itself: the main theme, “East Bound and Down,” remained on the country chart for four months and peaked at #2. The casting of A-lister Reynolds and beloved comic Jackie Gleason had a lot to do with the film’s success, and Sally Field was a revelation in just her fourth screen appearance, but Reed’s timely and toe-tapping trucker music can claim a share of the credit. It was the sound of the moment no less than the disco in Saturday Night Fever that same year.
Another consideration that made Smokey and the Bandit the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 behind Star Wars was the economic uncertainty of the decade. Of particular concern to American consumers and politicians was gas prices, which had first jumped noticeably in the early 1970s as a result of an Arab oil embargo. Long gas lines and fuel shortages prompted President Richard Nixon, a great regulator of the economy and patron of the environment despite his conservative credentials, to pursue emergency measures that many drivers considered draconic and un-American: a national speed limit of 50-55 miles per hour and a ban on Sunday sales of gasoline. Later, President Jimmy Carter called for more energy conservation and all-around belt-tightening.
Americans didn’t want to hear it. They voted Carter out of office in 1980, but seeing Smokey and the Bandit may have been their first act of peaceful revolt. The Bandit was an outlaw because he smuggled beer; he was a hero because he drove a fast car. The lure of speed contributed to the lesser but still substantial success of Convoy (1978), The Cannonball Run (1981), and the sequel Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). (Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, featuring Reed and Gleason but not the sexy duo of Reynolds and Field, bombed in 1983.) Nixon’s National Maximum Speed Limit Law remained on the books, but widely disregarded and unenforced, until 1995.
That was the year after Speed, starring a new generation’s A-listers Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, had made high-velocity road travel seem dangerous and terroristic rather than fun. Dennis Hopper, the hero of Easy Rider (1969), was now a villain. Trucks still made appearances on the country chart, but love songs were back on top thanks to the glossy stylings of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood. The CBs went to the pawn shop, and most Americans no longer even remembered what the term “Smokey” had meant.
Times had changed.
Smokey and the Bandit on Flickchart:
- Globally ranked #1291
- 3675 users have ranked it
- Wins 41% of matchups
- 3 users have it at #1
- 54 users have it in their top 20