By 2017’s standards, the 1977 film Smokey and The Bandit isn’t merely just an outdated film. It’s a quaint museum piece that prominently features characters using CB radios and driving “fast” cars that don’t seem particularly souped up even by the standards of the initial The Fast and The Furious from way back in 2001.
There is no way to mince words here. Low budget action movies from this period look bad. But for many reasons, Smokey and The Bandit not only holds up, but endures as an oddly simple classic of American cinema.
To be sure, a large part of this is the movie’s high octane star power. Burt Reynolds and Sally Field carry every shared scene with an indisputable chemistry, while Jackie Gleason stole the show with an inspired performance that was almost entirely ad libbed.
The movie works not only because it has an A-cast working a B-film but because the plot itself is beautifully simple. Bandit (Reynolds) and his buddy Cletus (the late Jerry Reed) are hired to bring 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta Georgia in 28 hours or fewer. Bootlegging! I didn’t know what the word meant when I saw the movie for the first time as a child, but I could tell that they were doing something bad, which made it fun.
It made sense as much as the spaceships in Star Wars or the prizefight in Rocky made sense to a pre-teen.”
As a kid watching Smokey for the first time, I didn’t ask any questions about what Bandit and Cletus were doing racing to Texas and back to get beer. It made sense as much as the spaceships in Star Wars or the prizefight in Rocky made sense to a pre-teen.
But watching the movie as an adult, I wondered why the hell they had to go all the way to Texas to get a beer that you can find in any supermarket or beer distribution center in the United States. I thought for a while that the screenwriters simply made up the central conceit.
Once I got to know a little bit about the blue laws that keep Georgia’s liquor stores closed on Sundays, I figured that perhaps there was a 48-hour window in Georgia when beer couldn’t be sold and Big Enos simply couldn’t wait that long.
The real story was even quainter than either of my rudimentary guesses. Because of laws surrounding preservation and pasteurization, Coors was illegal to distribute in many states, including those east of the Mississippi River. For all the silliness in Smokey and the Bandit, the movie’s primary plot point was based on an element of truth. It wasn’t until 1986 when Coors became a national product.
In retrospect, 1977 was a seminal year for beer, and not because of Smokey. Two things happened that year that seemed minor at the time, but revolutionized the way people look at beer:
-- Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer, a canon in the world of better beer
-- The New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California opens, and later is considered the first microbrewery in the United States.
If a studio decided to put together a remake of Smokey, it certainly wouldn’t be about Coors. The romantic ideal of the early 21st century wouldn’t be a Rocky Mountain brew but rather a microbrew. But while Coors has shot up the charts in popularity, Budweiser still lives up to its moniker as the King of Beers
Coors went from being a regional brew to a national powerhouse, with MillerCoors reporting a net income of $1.328 billion dollars in 2015 (source: Yahoo! Finance). David has transmogrified into Goliath, with the craft industry taking their place as the underdog with the slingshot in the pantheon of the beer market. While craft brewing has become anything but a niche industry, with only 12% of the U.S. market in 2015, the industry has a long way to go before it puts any kind of dent into the major players in the market.
Yet, as seen by the graphic above, Coors still has not supplanted Budweiser east of the Mississippi, with the odd exception of a tiny swatch of New York and Connecticut just north of New York City. The most significant change that has happened over the last 40 years is that light beer has become the beer of choice for many in the mainstream beer market.
When Smokey was released, light or “lite” beers were new. Miller Lite – one of the first nationally marketed light beers on the market – was simply called Lite when it was introduced in 1973. Natural Light was the first light beer marketed under Anheuser-Busch’s umbrella in 1977, with Budweiser Light introduced by Anheuser in 1982.
Coors wouldn’t put their light beer on the market until 1978, a year after Smokey was released. It is difficult to picture 1970s iconic Burt Reynolds’ Bandit hauling ass in a vintage Trans Am for light beer. Today, light beers are not only part of the beer market, they’re an integral component. Six of the Top 10 best selling beers in 2015 were light beers, and accounted for almost $13 billion in sales.
While no beer connoisseur would make this kind of herculean effort to get a can of Coors in 2017, the effort itself to get something different or unique can certainly be appreciated by a beer fan on the East Coast looking for something special that is distributed locally on the West Coast, or vice versa. Given the lack of choices in 1977 (homebrewing wasn’t even technically legal until 1978), the passion behind the quest itself is eminently relatable.
That Trans Am has become way more expensive as well, or at least replica versions of the car have. On the same day that President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Reynolds was out in Scottsdale, Arizona auctioning off a replica version of the classic movie car. This is the fourth time that Reynolds has auctioned off a version of the Trans Am. The price for these replicas has ranged from $170,000 to $550,000. Even today, that can buy you a lot of Coors.
The contemporary version of the 28-hour drive is an email exchange with a friend on the other side of the country setting up a beer trade, or perhaps an attempt to discover a five-star microbrew during a vacation or business trip that you can’t get in your neck of the woods. This isn’t the stuff of movies, but it makes Bandit’s quest believable in its way.
One of the most fun things about watching old movies as an adult is the window it opens into the world as it was back in the day. In a pre-Internet world, Smokey captured the regional-ness of the United States that doesn’t exist anymore, or at least doesn’t exist in the same kind of way.
Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system was barely 20 years old and far from complete. The ubiquitous chain restaurants that litter America today didn’t exist in part because those Interstate highways were being built and were mostly incomplete.
As much as cultural historians talk about how different the world was before the internet and smart phones arrived on the scene, Smokey takes us back a generation further, when it wasn’t just the lack of a worldwide web that made little corners of the United States unique, but a lack of roads as well.
I’ve watched Smokey and The Bandit at least a dozen times. I didn’t realize it when I was watching the movie as a kid, but most of the joy of the movie came from seeing two friends do something that was illegal but not harming anyone (assuming you’re willing to look past the danger of driving 100 miles or more per hour, which as a non-driving child I most certainly was).
It was easy to root for a pair of guys who were simply trying to bring drinks to a party.”
In a child’s world where most of your life is spent being told “no” by your parents, your teachers, and the menagerie of adults who traipse in and out of your world, it was easy to root for a pair of guys who were simply trying to bring drinks to a party. The presence of a ludicrously incompetent authority figure certainly helped; who wouldn’t root against a foil named Buford T. Justice?
As an adult, the joy of Smokey comes from the nostalgia of the simplicity of that time, and how elegant a movie like Smokey was in said simplicity. Every chase scene in the film – whether it is with Gleason’s Justice or with several of the other police officers who briefly appear onscreen – is a joyous mini-event in and of itself.
The movie is something that the bigger budget, larger action movies of today typically are not. It’s fun, not because of the special effects but just because of the action itself. I mentioned Star Wars earlier, and while Smokey isn’t in the same league as the iconic science fiction classic, it shares the same basic sensibility.
Smokey was a “bridge” movie for me with my brother when we were little. I liked sports. He liked cop shows. I enjoyed sitcoms. He enjoyed any drama that had guns. For us, Smokey was intersectional, bridging the gap between his interests and mine. We would grow up to have very different viewpoints on any number of topics, but it was easy to enjoy Smokey for what it was. It takes place in the Deep South of the 1970s, but it is a movie any American of any era can enjoy.
Today, Smokey is a movie I can watch for many of the same reasons. It’s ultimately a quest movie, and it is the simplicity of its telling that brings me back every couple of years to watch the story unfold again and again.
It is funny in retrospect to think of Coors as this magical talisman that holds the film together, but looking back at the America that was, it is easy to see how the beer that Gerald Ford once snuck into the White House captured the imagination of the viewing public.