You don’t have to dig too deep beneath its fan-pleasing veneer of nostalgic celebration to discern an intriguingly serious subtext in “The Bandit,” Jesse Moss’ behind-the-scenes account of the making of “Smokey and the Bandit,” the improbably successful and enduringly popular action-comedy that was the No. 2 box office smash (surpassed only by “Star Wars”) of 1977. Indeed, even those who remain immune to the yee-haw appeal of the earlier film — which, it should be noted, still commands a loyal following of repeat viewers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line — may be drawn to this gently probing documentary by Moss’ perceptive examination of the relationship between the two prime movers behind the ’77 project: Burt Reynolds, then a superstar with enough muscle to get pet projects greenlit, and his longtime friend Hal Needham, a daredevil stuntman who relied on his buddy’s help to make his feature-film directorial debut. After a run on the fest circuit and airdates on Country Music Television, this CMT-produced pic will get plenty of mileage in ancillary platforms.
Needham passed away in 2013 — one year after receiving a Governor’s Award from the Motion Picture Academy — but he’s well represented here through the affectionate testimony of his son, David Needham, and in a wealth of archival interviews and film clips. Broadcast journalists may giggle, or shudder with a shock of recognition, when they see Needham’s 1977 chat with a TV ditz who refers to the movie as “Smokey and the Bear,” and clearly has little idea just what Needham had to do with it.
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Reynolds is alive, reasonably well, and engagingly candid in newly filmed conversations, though he, too, pops up frequently in period interviews (including a not-entirely-comfortable ’70s chat with Barbara Walters) and excerpts from his early film and TV work. Of particular interest in the context of this doc: a clip from a classic “Twilight Zone” segment in which Reynolds — often heard here talking about his hunger for “serious” roles — does a hilarious comic take on Marlon Brando (whom Reynolds recalls as being rudely dismissive during their only real-life encounter).
Moss adroitly intertwines material about these two men, clips and production footage from “Smokey and the Bandit,” and animated interviews with other interested parties — including veteran stuntmen Gary Combs and Billy Burton, producer Robert L. Levy, “Bandit” co-star Paul Williams, and Hollywood gray eminence Albert S. Ruddy — to entertainingly chronicle the making of an unlikely blockbuster.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: “Smokey and the Bandit” follows the misadventures of legendary trucker Bo “Bandit” Darville (Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, who bets he can transport contraband beer — specifically, Coors — from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans-Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress. Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).
“The Bandit” traces the 1977 film’s origins back to an earlier Reynolds vehicle, “Gator” (the 1976 sequel to 1973’s “White Lightning”), which also was filmed in Georgia — where, at the time, Coors Beer could not be legally sold. (No, seriously.) When Needham, then still a stuntman, discovered that hotel employees were swiping, and then selling for exorbitant amounts, cases of Coors that “Gator” crew members had brought them, he was inspired to write a rough draft of what eventually would become “Smokey and the Bandit.”
But even with a commitment to star from Reynolds — whom he had met years earlier while working on “Riverboat,” a TV series the actor does not remember fondly — Needham had a difficult time setting up the project with himself as a first-time director. Universal only grudgingly agreed to finance the film — and even then, the studio demanded a last-minute, $1 million budget slash. “The Bandit” makes it very clear that no one was more surprised than the Universal brass when the box office reports started coming in.
Moss’ documentary dutifully notes how “Smokey and the Bandit” both reflected and influenced the zeitgeist of the mid-1970s, showing how it stoked the CB radio phenomenon, more or less created a movie subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby, and enhanced the overall reputation of good ol’ boys everywhere. But some of the more provocative aspects of “The Bandit” are things that aren’t in the film. Observers remember that Reynolds fought to have Sally Field, then best known for the “Flying Nun” sitcom, cast as the female lead — “This nun is dangerously sexy,” he is quoted as saying — but Field herself, who began a passionate romance with Reynolds during shooting, is conspicuous by her absence from the list of on-camera interviewees.
At another point in “The Bandit,” it’s reported that, after shooting the first of what was intended to be a handful of scenes with Reynolds and Jackie Gleason on screen together, Reynolds demanded that the subsequent scenes be scrapped. Why? The question isn’t directly answered, or even indirectly addressed.
“Bandit” is equally tactful, but a good deal more revealing, as it delves into the bond between Reynolds and Needham (who went on to make five other features together). Reynolds continues to speak warmly of his late friend, who was a houseguest in his L.A. mansion for more than a decade prior to the release of “Smokey and the Bandit.” (“If you’d have been a woman,” he seriocomically praises Needham is a vintage clip, “we would have had a great marriage.”)
Here and there, however, “Bandit” suggests that, despite their closeness, Needham was at least slightly jealous of his more famous buddy, and resentful that he could never quite achieve equal status as a celebrity — despite repeated attempts to elevate his profile with a Hal Needham stuntman action figure (which, to put it charitably, did not sell well), frequent TV appearances, and other attention-grabbing efforts.
Needham is also heard to jokingly — well, maybe only half-joking — complain that Reynolds imitated his wardrobe choices and appropriated other personality-defining characteristics. (Visual evidence here actually supports his case.) For his own part, Reynolds comes off, then and now, as largely grateful for his signature Bandit role, brushing aside any criticism that it might be viewed as something unworthy of someone seeking those aforementioned “serious” roles. Every so often, however, he insinuates some small regret over being typecast as a redneck hero. On the other hand: He appears to regret his notorious 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold much, much more.
“The Bandit” is so craftily constructed that, whatever your feelings about Reynolds’ trademark turn as the wisecracking showoff who keeps his pedal to the metal in his Trans-Am, you likely will find yourself appreciating the actor’s self-deprecating humor, and might even be tempted to take another (or a first) look at “Smokey and the Bandit” on homevideo. And your enjoyment will be amped if, like country superstar Brad Paisley, one of several celebrity “Smokey” fans interviewed here, you always want to imagine Reynolds behind the wheel of that Trans-Am. “If he drove up in a Lexus,” Paisley admits, ”it would just destroy me.”