What Smokey & the Bandit Can Still Teach Us about the “New South”

In the summer of 1977 a movie hit the multiplexes, twin cinemas, and dwindling drive-ins of America like a storm, making over a hundred million dollars (in 1977 dollars at that!) and leaving a lasting mark on the pop cultural landscape. The film I am talking about, of course, is Smokey and the Bandit.

Overshadowed in memory by Star Wars, the other big hit of that summer, it shared some DNA with that much more idolized movie-cum-phenomenon/religion. Both feature extended, masterfully executed chase scenes. Both glamorize truckers. (Admit it, Han and Chewie are basically space truckers.) Both have rural hicks as heroes. (Luke bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 is the space equivalent of squirrel hunting.) Both involve a woman being saved from the clutches of a hate-filled authority figure by rebels.

Most importantly, both Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit were genre pictures—space adventure and hot rod movie respectively—in genres typically assigned to “B movie” status. Following the runaway success of Jaws, which was basically a Burt I. Gordon creature feature done with greater care and professionalism, Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit paved the way to the box office present. Nowadays comic books, once considered the lowest form of lowbrow culture, provide the material for the biggest grossing motion pictures.

Unlike Star Wars, however, Smokey and the Bandit represented a milestone in the history of the American South. As historians like Bruce Schulman and Jack T Kirby have argued, the South began to take on an outsize role in American politics, society, and culture during the 1970s. It sought to project an image of a “new” South, one defined by growing cities like Houston and Atlanta, not by the images of Bull Connor and the Klan.

Smokey and the Bandit is one long argument for the rehabilitation of this new South, and an attempt to repudiate the old one while still glorifying many of the bygone characteristics of White culture in the region. (Make no mistake, it is still the White South and its culture being highlighted in the film.) It is a clarion call to all the Yankees and others who may have looked down on the South, and presents a fun-loving, high-spirited place where the old problems have been consigned to the past.

It’s worth noting that Smokey and the Bandit followed a wave of countercultural road movies kicked off by Easy Rider in 1969. These films typically involved misfits adrift in an America where the Sixties dream was dying. The two most powerful examples are 1971’s Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop. The former revolves around a traumatized ex-cop eventually chased down to his death, and the latter features two practically mute hippies going town to town to drag race without any evident joy. While Smokey and the Bandit also features rebels evading the law and loving their cars, there is no way that the heroes can be mistaken for hippies.

By 1977 the Sixties were so dead that the elegies had stopped, but the counterculture also became a mainstream commodity. In Smokey and the Bandit it’s the rednecks who have become the rebels. That’s quite a turn of events from 1969, when Easy Rider ended with the two hippie biker heroes being blown away by two hicks in a pickup truck.

Seriously… what?

By 1977, in fact, truckers had become outlaw figures. Some of this had to do with a trucking strike in the mid-1970s, which was the inspiration for CW McCall’s novelty hit “Convoy.” In the song a group of truckers form a convoy, traveling across the country, smashing through toll booths and evading the police. “Convoy” and the growing CB radio craze it exploited touched off a firestorm of trucking-related entertainment in the late 70s, including the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy and a movie based off of the song starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, and Ernest Borgnine (of all people) as an evil hick sheriff. Even more surreally, there was a trucker-simian subgenre, including Clint Eastwood as a trucker with an orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose and the TV series BJ and the Bear, where the ape partner was a chimp.

Smokey and the Bandit’s opening reflected the trucker as outlaw theme. It starts with a tight shot of the grill of a semi, the engine roaring, then cuts to its exhaust pipes set against a glorious orange sunrise. The first words on the screen are not the film’s title, but “Burt Reynolds,” just so we know whose movie this really is. We are introduced to him, lying in a hammock outside of a truck-pulling rodeo, a decidedly country form of entertainment. Reynolds was hitting the big time in the late 1970s, and was most definitely not representative of the more sensitive style of masculinity gaining traction at the time. The Bandit (which is hard to separate from Reynolds) is a kind of anti-Alan Alda, happy to leer at women, wear a cowboy hat, hot rod in his car, and sport a macho mustache. He represents a virile Southern masculinity, as far from New York City and Woody Allen as possible. (Annie Hall also came out in 1977, and the worlds of these two films might as well be on different planets.)

Reynolds had earlier made a moustache-less impact in Deliverance, perhaps the Hollywood film most emblematic of the negative stereotypes and fears about the rural South.  To pay penance, he vindicates that world in this film.  He and his trucker partner Cledus Snow (“Snowman”) are given an offer by a wealthy father and son (the preposterously named “Big Enos” and “Little Enos” Burdette) to go from Atlanta to Texarkana to get a load of Coors beer, then to bring it back to Atlanta for a post-stock car race celebration, all in just 28 hours. Back in those days Coors was not available east of the Mississippi, meaning that the boys will be liable for breaking bootlegging laws and will have to drive like maniacs to do it, making them outlaws.[i] Unlike the earlier countercultural road movies, this is less a search for meaning than it is a contest. It’s not rebellion out of principle, but rebellion for cash, reflecting the values that paved the way for the coming Reagan Dawn.

The film does not really pick up until after the heroes leave Texarkana with the beer, and the Bandit picks up a runaway bride played by Sally Field. It turns out she was to marry the son of a local sheriff, and now the two of them are after her. Reynolds and Field’s on-screen relationship (they were also romantically connected in real life) is used to highlight what we today might call the divide between red and blue states. She is a professional dancer from up north who wants to talk to the Bandit about Stephen Sondheim, while the Bandit then asks her if she’s heard of country singer Brenda Lee (she hasn’t.) There’s a similar conversation later, where the macho Bandit says he doesn’t like Elton John, but he does like Waylon Jennings. He then tells the bride that “how dumb you are” depends on “what part of the country you’re standing in.” The bride is won over by this statement, and the two then literally consummate the rejoining of the North and South on favorable terms for the latter, a Waylon Jennings song playing in the background.

This is a brief break, however, from the chase driving the plot. Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice makes an apt villain in a film presenting a modern South to the nation at large. The racist, authoritarian Southern sheriff had become a national villain during the civil rights years, and by making him the baddie the Bandit is shown to be against the reactionary values of the old South. In fact, he is helped at one point by an African-American hearse driver and funeral director, who use a funeral procession to cut off Justice. Later on Snowman stops at a roadhouse run by an African-American proprietor and speaks on familiar terms with him and a black trucker at the diner counter. The implication is pretty clear: Bandit and Snowman, heroes of the new integrated South, have rejected the racism of the old one.

From classic 1950s threats of domestic abuse to 1970s Southern villainy

That being said, the portrayal of Sheriff Justice elides quite a bit. For example, in one scene he crashes into the car of an Arkansas sheriff who had been telling him over the radio to stay out of his jurisdiction. Sheriff Branford, unbeknownst to Justice, happens to be African American. When they meet Justice is obviously surprised, and even greets Branford with “Hey boy.” After they talk Justice turns to his son and shakes his head, saying “What has the world come to?” However, Sheriff Branford is not allowed to say anything back to him, which one would expect. There is no “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” moment allowed here, perhaps in an attempt to pretend that actual racial tension no longer exists in the South.

More problematically (yes, I’m using that word), Gleason plays Justice with such elan that he becomes an Archie Bunker-type character, a bigot who many in the audience can easily have affection for. He is also such a bungler that is difficult to see him as much of a threat. The message seems to be that while artifacts of the bad old days like Buford T. Justice still exist in the South, they are harmless, and perhaps even part of the quaint local charm.

The lingering realities beneath the film’s fun-loving surface are also evident in the license plate on the front of Bandit’s car, which happens to be the state flag of Georgia. At that time, from 1956 to 2001, over half of that flag was in fact the Confederate battle flag. Like a lot of other Southern states, Georgia added the stars and bars to its flag as a symbol of defiance against the growing power of the civil rights movement. Thus the Bandit, who is supposed to be the virile symbol of a new South that has its old charms mixed with a more progressive outlook, drives around his heroic Trans-Am with the most noxious symbol of the old South right on its bumper. This is by no means on the same level as the Dukes of Hazzard, but noteworthy, and telling.

When I watch this film and see that symbol, small but ubiquitous, I am reminded of the reality of the drive between East Texas and Atlanta, because I have made it many times. I lived in Nacogdoches, Texas, for three years, while one of my closest friends resided in Atlanta and my fiancé (now wife) wife lived in New Jersey. (It’s a long story.) I would drive every summer to Jersey and back, with a lengthy stay-over in Atlanta. I got to know I-20 like the back of my hand, and on my first trip realized I was retracing the Bandit’s tire treads.

That trip passes through towns that evoke very specific memories of America’s fraught racial past. There’s Vicksburg, site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War. In the middle of Mississippi there’s Jackson, where Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. Just before getting to the Alabama border, there’s a sign for Philadelphia, where Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney were brutally murdered. Further down the road, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to resist integration. Not long after, I-20 comes to Birmingham, perhaps the bloodiest battleground in the fight for civil rights. Before I-20 leaves Alabama, it passes through Anniston, where a mob bombed a bus carrying Freedom Riders and almost killed them. The road ends in Atlanta, where the victory of the Union in the Civil War became inevitable.

The first time I made the trip I was stunned at how many reminders of America’s violent racial history were written in the names on the signs of one stretch of highway. The ghosts are thick on the road that the Bandit travels, but you’d never know it from the film, which is a big celebration of a modern South where the old hatreds are gone but its quaint charms live on. In the 1970s, during the Sun Belt’s ascendancy, the best way to deal with the region’s uncomfortable past was simply to forget it, and focus on the future.

Forty years later, the Sun Belt is still siphoning off population from the rest of the country and now even the world, and from Walmart to CNN, has established global trends. However, the recent successful movements to remove Confederate monuments signal that the forgetfulness that marked the Bandit’s trek may no longer stand. At the same time, the deadly protest against removal of monuments in Charlottesville by Richard Spencer and his racist torch-bearing mob is a reminder that Anniston and Birmingham and Philadelphia are no mere litany of past events.

Smokey and the Bandit is still a big load of stupid fun, and a fascinating relic to boot. It’s not just a relic of a time when truckers and CB radios were hip, but of a time when the South’s rise to national and global power included a futile attempt to escape its past. That time feels increasingly removed from the world of today, and that’s not a bad thing.

[i] This is entirely appropriate, considering that NASCAR has its origins in the souped up cars used by bootleggers to outrun the revenuers.

Jason Tebbe earned his PhD in history from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has successfully escaped academia and is now a private school teacher in New York City. Jason lives in New Jersey with his family.