How Cool It Was— Back Then

There’s been a lot of heavy stuff to write about lately in the Deep South . . . race in politics, controversial legislation, and the death of a talented writer. Here it is, the heart of the winter, nearly a full month into the dead season with more than two months still to go until spring, and I’m looking for something good to talk about.

So, what better way to take my mind off the mean ol’ present by waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ past. I’m about a half a year late writing about this one, but not too long ago I read that last May marked the 35th anniversary of the release of the classically zany film depiction of the Deep South in the late ’70s, Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason. If you’ve never seen this movie, shame on you! And frankly, the only thing I respect less than a Southerner who has never seen this movie is a Southerner who has only seen the censored TBS version that used to air on lazy Saturday afternoons, the version where Sheriff Buford T. Justice keeps using the overdubbed, heavily censored epithet “scum bum” (in the place of “sumbitch”).

Where I come from, we grew up on this movie, its sequels, and other movies like it. There was nothing any of us wanted more than a black Trans Am with T-tops. Smokey and the Bandit even made driving an eighteen-wheeler seem cool. Growing up working-class in the Deep South in the late 1970s and 1980s, the kids in my neighborhood felt like we were part of the coolest thing going on the planet Earth when we watched the TV shows and movies that showed all these wild, law-breaking Southerners.

Smokey and the Bandit was released in 1977, and its sequel in 1980, and were egged on in popularity by the instant-classic Jerry Reed song “East Bound and Down.” (Sadly, in 1983, an attempt was made at Smokey and the Bandit 3, which didn’t have Burt Reynolds in it, but we’re going to ignore the fact that that piece of shit was ever made.) We couldn’t get enough of them! We watched them when we could, talked about them all the time, and even played games in the yard and on our bikes pretending we were playing out the movie, the Bandit being chased by Buford T. Justice.

And that wasn’t all we had to bolster our grade-school Southern pride. The TV show, Dukes of Hazzard, set in the fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, ran from 1979 until 1985, also pushed forward by its theme song, written and performed by Waylon Jennings – Just a good ‘ol boy . . . never meanin’ no harm . . . – and by overplayed images of the General Lee flying through the air to make the ultimate getaway. What could be cooler than running from the cops and getting away every time?

Or what about the 1982 Kenny Rogers racing-themed movie Six Pack. We already knew Kenny Rogers from his songs “The Gambler” in 1978 and “Coward of the County” in 1979. So when Six Pack came along, it cemented his coolness with us.

(And even beyond the South, this period was the heyday for glorifying wacky depictions of working-class folks and rednecks in TV, film, and music. Think about Clint Eastwood’s 1978 classic Every Which Way But Loose and its 1980 sequel Any Which Way You Can,  the 1980 John Travolta movie Urban Cowboy, the short-lived trucking-themed TV show BJ and the Bear, and the 1975 song “Convoy” by CW McCall.)

Let’s just say it was a good time to be growing up redneck. All that stuff brings back memories like you wouldn’t believe! Now, figure this: if the Bandit and Snowman were bringing back that Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta, they would have been driving right across the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. In our real lives, we recognized those winding two-lane backroads that seemed to roll out aimlessly through the green spaces between towns. Those side dirt roads and old rickety bridges lined with scrub trees and old barns where the Bandit and the Duke boys made their getaways— we knew those, too, as the washboard paths to our families’ fishing holes and hunting camps.

And for us boys, who didn’t even understand at that tender age why we cared at all, our conceptions of what a fine woman ought to look like were formed by what we saw of Carrie (Sally Field) and Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach)— and by that Farrah Fawcett poster that every boy in America owned back then, but that’s a-whole-nother story. Every Friday night when we watched Dukes of Hazzard we got that little glimpse of Daisy Duke in her red bikini standing in the middle of road. We didn’t know why we were glad that Daisy Duke came on the screen in her short-shorts, we were just glad.

However, it’s got to be pointed out that Smokey and the Bandit has a limited, regional appeal among men of a certain age. As Exhibit A of what I mean, take this excerpt from an August 2012 article, “‘Smokey and the Bandit’: A Tribute to Hal Needham,” written by senior entertainment writer Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post. After acknowledging first that he had intended to write about another Hal Needham movie, Megaforce, and second that he hadn’t watched Smokey and the Bandit in a long time, he calls the movie “great,” but then ruins it by writing this:

The gist (because you already know this): The Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Snowman (Jerry Reed) accept a bet to drive from Atlanta, GA, to Texarkana, TX, and back — and bring back with them 400 cases of Coors for reasons I still don’t understand. (I mean, I understand that at the time it was illegal to sell Coors west of the Mississippi river — I just don’t understand because Coors doesn’t taste that particularly great.) And this had to be done in under 28 hours. (According to Google maps, this round trip would, today, take a normal human being 24 hours and 22 minutes to complete if he or she drove at the speed limit nonstop. I assume this is because the American highway system has improved drastically over the last 35 years, not because the Bandit didn’t really drive that fast after all.) Oh, along the way, they meet Frog (Sally Field) who … well, it doesn’t really matter, they just do.

After I got through with this part, I quit reading and was sorry that I had started. First of all, Ryan doesn’t understand why, “because Coors doesn’t taste that particularly great.” I’ll tell you why they did it: Because it was cool as hell! That’s why! What did you want them to do, drive over Belgium to bring back some Chimay from the Trappist monks? Second, this guy admits openly that he plugged the Bandit’s route into Google Maps to figure out how realistic the premise really is, then punctuates that shameful confession with the cynical remark that maybe “the Bandit didn’t really drive that fast after all.” Of course he didn’t, it was a freakin’ movie! If you want accuracy, watch the Travel Channel! I rest my case.

You know, if you’re looking for realism, none of these movies or shows are going to be your thing. For example, according to the article, “‘Smokey and the Bandit’: 25 Things You Didn’t Know about the Burt Reynolds Movie,” on the website moviefone.com, here’s another example of a hater posing as a fan:

10. The plot, in which Bandit and Cletus have 28 hours to drive from Georgia to Texarkana, Texas, and return with an illegal shipment of Coors beer, took a lot of liberties with reality. In truth, Texarkana was located in a dry county, so Coors wasn’t legally sold there, either. Also, the round trip would have been only 1,260 miles, not 1,800, making the 28-hour feat a lot less impressive.

Regardless of the haters, it just makes me happy to think about all this stuff— and it makes me sad for people who spend their time tearing it down now. I don’t really care that these movies and TV shows were hokey and kind of weird. They were made for guys like my dad who fixed machinery for the phone company five days a week, drank beer when he got home, and worked on the car on weekends. Going back and thinking about them again reminds me of a simpler time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when something could just be what it was. There didn’t have to be any fact-checking. Maybe I was just too young to know better, but I don’t think so.

Recently, a friend told me, when I told him that I was writing about Smokey and the Bandit, that Hal Needham made a couple of Bandit TV movies in the mid-1990s. I don’t think I ever saw them and, after he told me that, I didn’t look any of them up. I don’t want to think about what would have been in them. The times had changed. All that magic was gone, I do know that.

When I was looking around for things to write about here, I saw that last year the UCLA Film School held a double-feature screening of Smokey and the Bandit and Stroker Ace, another racing themed Burt Reynolds movie from 1983. I wonder what those 21st century California film students thought about while they were watching those two movies. The were probably laughing, but not for the same reasons we did thirty years ago. Like I said, times have changed . . . and cynicism has the lead role now.

I don’t have anything really insightful to say about Smokey and the Bandit or The Dukes of Hazzard. I just wanted to take a break from thinking about the crap that’s going on today. We all have to do that sometimes, don’t we?

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