Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Heath Holland On...Smokey, the Bandit and the Resurrection of the Alabama Kid

This week’s column was NOT supposed to be about Smokey and the Bandit. It was going to be about the three Dolph Lundgren movies I bought last week and what I thought about them. It was going to be called Dolph Lundren Triple Play, and I was going to go on and on about how I thought he was underrated and consistently put out decent, low budget straight-to-DVD action movies on a regular basis. That column was all set to go, and I had extensive notes. It was already mostly written in my head.

This is not that column.

Maybe that’s coming next week. This week is going to be a little more personal, honest, and a little raw.

(unzips pants)

If that’s not something you’re into, check back next week for some Dolph Lundgren Fun-dgren. I’m so, SO sorry for that pun (no I’m not). In a minute we’ll talk about Smokey and The Bandit, but let me lay some foundation first.

Most of you know I live in Alabama. WAIT, don’t go!  I promise, I’m going somewhere with this, but like I said, this is my fourth column: this time…IT’S PERSONAL.

Where was I? Oh yes…er….Alabama. Ugh. I’ve always rebelled against the whole “southern thing.” There’s a period in your life, let’s say age 10 and under, when you are firmly a product of your environment. You watch what your family watches, you hold their political and religious views, you listen to their music, dress the way they want you to, etc. So I grew up in a pretty southern state of mind. It’s a lot like Jay-Z’s "Empire State Of Mind," just with 100% more sausage gravy and the occasional grits. During those first, formative 10 years, I said “y’all,” pronounced “dog” as “dawg,” and probably said “shoot, I reckon” more times than I’d like to admit. When something goes your way, you say “Hallelujah, and pass the cornbread.” Okay, in all honesty, no one says that and I’ve never, ever said that. But wait, now I have. CRAP.

But from 12 or 13 onward, I distanced myself as far away from that culture as I could. Let’s say this: NOT A FAN. For 20 years I’ve wrestled with this, and usually loathed being here and all that comes with it. I’ve felt like a man away from his home, wherever that may be. I think it’s London, but that’s another story/column/movie review. For now, I’m Annoyed In Alabama. Wait, don’t go! I promise, this is about Smokey and the Bandit.

As I write this, I’ve just gotten home from a big classic car show and hot rod convention where I was accompanied by my six-year old stepdaughter and where we both had a blast. It’s brought back a lot of memories about going to car shows with my dad as a kid, and how during the last 20 years I’ve hated all that stuff. I hated old cars. Prius, please! I hated car shows because they celebrated those old cars. It reminded me too much of the time I’ve wanted to excise from the film that is my life. The MPAA has requested that those parts be cut in order to maintain the rating I’ve requested, and I have complied.

But wait! This film is not yet rated. That wall I’d put up in order pretend I was never that kid with the southern accent started to come down a few years ago. I’m getting older, and I just don’t have the passion or the desire to run from some of the stuff I’ve been fleeing from any longer. I don’t know why I’ve changed and stopped fighting the influence of some of the more “country” stuff from my childhood, but I’m finally at a place where I can own the fact that I love The Dukes of Hazzard, Willie Nelson, and…Smokey and the Mother Funkin’ Bandit!
Why am I even talking about Smokey and the Bandit? Because at this car show I went to today, the one that reminded me of the car shows I went to with my dad as a kid, they had a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The Bandit car. And when I stood in front of that car, I knew I had to write about Smokey and the Bandit and the journey I’ve been on that led me to see the movie. That’s way better than me just telling you my thoughts on some random movie, right? To give you a peek at why I feel the way I feel? To try to connect? Wait, where are you going NOW? Come back! We’re about to talk about Smokey And The Bandit! See, I told you we’d get to that movie!

I didn’t even see the movie until September of 2012. I always thought it was a ridiculous, low-budget redneck movie -- an excuse to jump cars over big gaps and then crash them and to justify running from the police. Turns out that’s EXACTLY what it is, and I love it.

The plot…HA, THE PLOT (he says, knowing there’s not much of one) is centered around The Bandit, played by Burt Reynolds at the peak of his mustachioed, cowboy-hatted coolness. A rich business man (Pat McCormick) and his son (Paul Williams) want The Bandit (at this point I’m starting to feel ridiculous typing this) to smuggle a bunch of Coors beer (it’s the Banquet Beer, I’m told by Sam Elliott on a commercial, and I get the impression Sam Elliott knows a thing or two about beer) from Texarkana to Georgia. Coors wasn’t available that far east in the mid '70s, and crossing state lines with alcohol was bootlegging. Reynolds has his buddy and fellow truck driver Snowman (Jerry Reed) join in as the man behind the wheel, while Bandit spends the movie in the black Trans Am driving ahead of Snowman to keep the coast clear and keep any heat off. Heat off of Snowman….tee hee. Sally Field is also here as a sweet, perhaps miscast (she’s so wholesome!) hitchhiker that Reynolds picks up. Hot on their trail is Smokey, the sheriff Buford T. Justice played by Jackie Gleason. That’s the set up. What follows is basically a demolition derby and a monster truck show combined.

Look, all of this is just an excuse to see cool cars drive fast, do crazy stunts, glorify life slightly outside the law (as long as you don’t mean any real harm), and have fist fights in bars. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on here, but it’s really mostly clean fun of a variety that I don’t think we see much of anymore. In spite of all the high speed racing, fleeing from the law, and getting into all sorts of slightly illegal trouble, this movie has a body count of zero. There’s an awful lot of cool car stuff in The Fast and the Furious series, but that’s played very differently; that movie is more dangerous. The '70s were a weird time for things like this. For a decade, it seemed like big muscle cars and motorcycles were the obsession of every red-blooded male -- a purely American pursuit. Only in America, with our long, open roads and rebellious (arrogant) attitude would you see this love affair of men and their expensive, gas-hogging machines.

Tons of these kinds of movies (let's call it "car porn") came out during this time, the most famous being American Graffiti, but let’s not forget all the others: the original Gone In 60 Seconds, Two Lane Blacktop, Corvette Summer, Death Race 2000 and even Mad Max. 1975 brought us Moonrunners, which has largely been forgotten, but was created by the guy who brought us The Dukes of Hazzard a couple of years later and which featured characters from Moonrunners and, like Moonrunners, was narrated by Waylon Jennings. The plot was very similar to that of Smokey and The Bandit, but it came out two years earlier. It’s a strange cycle: Moonrunners inspired Smokey And the Bandit, which inspired the creation of The Dukes of Hazzard. That’s a lot of italics. That’s also a lot of crashed cars, cowboy hats, and belt buckles.
Burt Reynolds is fantastic in this movie. He doesn’t really seem to be acting. He might not be, I can’t decide. He proved to us all in Deliverance that he could hold his own with a dramatic role, and also proved that he had the machismo that we got so much of in the late '70s. A reaction against the Elliot Goulds and the  Donald Sutherlands? Who can say, but it was during this period that we saw the gradual decline of uncertain and flawed, introspective leading man embodied by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, George Segal, and Warren Beatty. Burt Reynolds was voted the sexiest man alive. Remember, in just a few years the box office would be dominated by the likes of John Rambo and Conan. Things were about to change for good. I find Reynolds to be really easy to watch -- just effortless, charismatic, and I think he’s having fun. There’s a part in the movie when he looks directly into the camera and smiles at you. If I wore panties (and sometimes maybe I do), they would DROP.

Jerry Reed is great, too. He brings a feel of authenticity. Reed was a Nashville session musician in the '60s and '70s and was such a great guitar player that Elvis Presley sought him out to play on several of his records. Reed is perfectly cast here as the truck driving Snowman, because he feels like the real thing. He was born and raised in Georgia, and you get the impression he’s just being himself, which is exactly what I think Burt Reynolds is doing. I can’t tell you how cool I think Jerry Reed is. His music has this weird quality…it’s part funk, part country, part rhythm and blues…but he turns it into something else. Okay, honestly, I think he sounds like a Muppet. Seriously, go to YouTube right now and listen to “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and then tell me that it doesn’t sounds like something that Jim Henson would have created. I could see Jerry Reed playing in Electric Mayhem. I bet his records spent a lot of time on Henson’s turntable. I’m just saying, you’ve never seen Doctor Teeth and Jerry Reed in the same room at the same time. Think about it. My point here is that he wrote "Eastbound and Down," the very popular theme song for the movie, OVERNIGHT. He went home from shooting one day and came back the next day with the song. He’s awesome.

Jackie Gleason…I’ve never cared for. It’s a certain mean spirited style, that old Don Rickles “Take My Wife, Please” kind of thing that I’ve never connected to. As you can tell from reading my columns, I need to connect. I don’t do well with nothing but a harsh exterior. But he’s fine, he’s here to do something, which is yell a lot, curse a lot, and do things like hit people with his hat and improvise insults. That’s what he does, and if that’s what they wanted, they hired the right man for the job. Sally Field, on the other hand, feels like she belongs in a different movie. She’s too innocent to offer sex appeal, too cute to offer any sort of danger for the Bandit. Then again, she’s not asked to do much, either. That’s one of the reasons I like this movie. The setup is familiar and simple (“You have to get from point A to point B without getting caught!"), but the detours along the way seem like they were created on the fly depending on where they happened to be shooting that day. It has a very “seat of the pants” feel to it.
The real star is the car. I love the car. I grew up with KITT from Knight Rider, that black GMC van from The A-Team, the orange Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum P.I.’s red Ferrari. Even though it took me years to see the movie and a ton of baggage to overcome in order to enjoy it, I really connected to the awesomeness of “a dude and his car” when I finally did. I take indescribable pleasure from seeing it jump over broken bridges and outrun police cars. I want to be jumping over those broken bridges. I want to outrun police cars! Decades before The Fast and the Furious, we have cars doing dangerous things like sliding under 18 wheelers. That’s the second time I’ve brought up The Fast and the Furious, but I think there’s a lot to compare here. I mean, Reynolds is not a cop, but the idea of living outside the law and abiding by your own moral code prevails in both films, and they are both heavily centered around car culture. This movie celebrates the spirit of independence, but no one ever gets hurt by it.

So why did I tell you all that stuff at the beginning of this column? Why did I bare my soul and tell you a bunch of potentially embarrassing things about being an Alabama Southerner in King Arthur’s Court? Because just a few years ago, I never would have watched this movie, nor would I have been talking about how cool Jerry Reed was. Nor, for that matter, would I have ever gone to that car show. But I’m getting older. My tastes are changing. I’m getting COMFORTABLE. Or, if you will, I’m learning that, in some way, Smokey and the Bandit was ALWAYS a part of me. I like it so much because I identify with it. The South depicted in this movie is, for better or for worse, the South of my childhood, the South I’ve been trying to outrun for twenty years. Look, I fully believe that in another 20 years I’ll probably be a long way from the South, but the South is a part of who I am. I learn that a little bit more all the time.
Seeing this movie recently knocked that wall down a little bit more. It’s not down all the way, but I’m working on it. I promise you I won’t be writing any columns about Fried Green Tomatoes or Driving Miss Daisy, but I had to share this with you guys. As I was standing by the Bandit’s car admiring the black curves and the flaming bird on the hood, all I could think about was how cool this movie is, and how much I wanted to write about it -- about how I grew up in the South shown in the movie, and about how much I once would have been very, very embarrassed by that. Not anymore. My message, to myself more than anyone else, is Like what you Like. Don’t be afraid of what people think of you, ESPECIALLY if that person is you. Life is too short.

Hallelujah, and pass the cornbread.


  1. Nice read, Heath. The personal context you give for your opinion is definitely worth including in a review when it's written as well as this.

  2. Thanks, Darren. I had a tough time with this one because it was the most personal of my columns so far. But now that it's done, I feel really good about it. It helped me grow. Thanks for reading and for the compliment.

  3. I love that sweet, sweet Trans AM too, Heath. Apparently, someone got the memo, because lots of my childhood TV watching was Blue Thunder, Airwolf, A-Team, Street Hawk, and Automan. If it had wheels, wings, or rotors, and fired missiles, I was on board.

    1. But now that you're a grown-up, do you realize that it was the combination of a cool vehicle AND a cool human character (or a passable facsimile) that made the difference between the genuine article and the pretenders? Seriously, do you even remember or care for "Automan" since it was driven by Desi Arnaz Jr. and what's-his-name? Or the dude that piloted that ABC show with the bike that went really fast? Exactly.

      I like that, as much as Heath's article mentions the Trans Am, he puts equal or greater weight on Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed as reasons for his liking "Smokey and the Bandit." Not sure young kid or teenage 'Hollywood' Heath would have focused on anything other than the car if he had seen the movie back then.

    2. I forgot all about Street Hawk! Do kids these days have shows like that to connect to? I feel like they don't. I feel like that was something just for our generation.

  4. Great read, Heath. I honestly didn't know where this was going for the first third, then I got it. As a human being and an individual (which means I'm different and unique than anybody else alive, umm, yay?) I can relate with the 'not getting along with your environment but learning to cope with who you are and what you like' dilemma. Age and grown-up obligations (relationships and family, particularly young kids) have a way of setting you on a place in life where you learn to appreciate what you have because you realize there's not that much time left for anything new to grab/enthrall you like what did it for you at a young age. So long as the early stuff one learns isn't against the law or damaging of someone else's livelihood then it's OK to go back and embrace the good (not all) that we remember.

    Have you seen the "Smokey" sequels? Since you've seen the first you might as well take the plunge for completeness sake, but there's considerable diminishing returns going forth. I say watch "Part II" and, if you can stand it, really breath deep and marvel at how the goodwill of two "Smokey" movies can be spit in patrons' faces with "Part III." You said my feelings for the first movie, which is weird because I grew-up in a third-world banana republic where the dubbed versions of "Smokey" and "Dukes of Hazzard" were neutered of their cultural uniqueness by a neutral Spanish translation. And yet I loved them as a kid, which I guess is a testament to the universal appeal of lawbreaking, fast cars outrunning cops and American movies. Uh, ye-haw? :-P

    My new-to-me recent movies.

    2/11/13: A little bit of Tony Stark would have gone a long way in Jon Favrau's IRON MAN 2 (2010) on Telemundo.

    2/12/13: Fernando Di Leo's minor 'poliziottesco' classic (Quention Tarantino likes it, so it must be sooo awesome!!!) RULERS OF THE CITY (1976) on Blu-ray.


    1. I have not seen the sequels, and there are many. There's a DVD on Amazon touting itself as the 7 movie Outlaw Collection. How did they know I like outlaws? I believe at least several of them are TV movies, but that's okay. The retail is only 15 dollars, and it can be had for half that. I'll check into them before long.

      If you don't mind me asking, where did you grow up? I think it's really interesting to think of kids in another country growing up with the same celebration of running from the Popo in their souped up muscle cars and cowboy hats. But then, Mexico and Central America has a similar celebration of the western and cowboy spirit.

      Yee-Haw indeed.