Celebrating the car chase of Smokey & The Bandit

With the London Classic Car Show arriving, we salute the automotive joy of Hal Needham's Smokey & The Bandit

Arriving in cinemas in 1977, Smokey And The Bandit is an action comedy that may as well list the road itself as an added character when its end credits appear. It’s directed by Hal Needham, who sadly died just a week or two ago, and it’s a real testament to his skill.

With the London Classic Car Show running from Excel from 15th-18th February – details here – we figured we’d take another mooch at the film, and in particular, its finest car chase.

A long-standing stuntman at first, Needham would bring the marriage of comedy and cars to the big screen again, in the Smokey And The Bandit follow-up, and the mighty The Cannonball Run. But he marries together a cracking collection of ingredients here, in what is his directorial debut. He may not have too many directorial trademarks when it comes to characters standing around having a chat, but get them in a car/lorry/soon to be destroyed pieces of metal, and it’s clear why he became so revered for such sequences.

Pinpointing a single car chase isn’t easy, given that large chunks of the film takes place behind the wheel. Plus, it is effectively one chase anyway. But heck, we’ll give it a go..

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The rivalry

Burt Reynolds must have though that he and his ever-impressive facial hair were the star attractions of Smokey And The Bandit when they signed on the dotted line. Notwithstanding Sally Field, who makes getting out of a wedding dress while sat in the passenger seat of a car look as tricky as it probably is, Reynolds gets top billing.

But the film is stolen from beneath the last vestiges of his fine lip foliage by Jackie Gleason, gleefully announcing himself at regular intervals as Sheriff Buford T Justice of Portague County. He and Reynolds’ Bandit go toe-to-toe for much of the film – save for a quick bite to eat at a roadside cafe – and whilst Needham deserves credit for staging some excellent driving sequences, the casting of Gleason is pivotal to what makes Smokey And The Bandit such a hoot. Their tactical battle is as interesting as the execution of it too.

The driving

The basic premise of Smokey And The Bandit follows Burt Reynolds’ Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville, a good, old fashioned 70s anti-hero of sorts. The film establishes quickly that running a truck load of Coors over county lines will get you arrested. Thus, the Bandit is recruited to take the job on, trousering $80,000 for his efforts.

It’s more than a one-person job this, as it involves a drive of some 1800 miles in under 30 hours. Furthermore, the police are in hot pursuit for most of the film, and that means that there’s a big truck and Bandit’s Pontiac Trans Am leading the charge. The plan is for Bandit to be the decoy, to draw the attention of the police, while the truck – with its illicit cargo – can safely make its way to Georgia.

Rule breakers

Belting down the freeway, weaving in and out of cars, Bandit doesn’t just have his wheels to help him get the upper hand, he also has his trusty CB radio. It’s a really good tactic too, not least because Hal Needham himself is doing some of the stunts.

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It’s not just fellow drivers that the Bandit recruits, either. Outside a beef burger joint five minutes down the road, a quick radio ahead leads to the creation of an impromptu road obstruction. Bandit knows it’s coming, and makes his way through, which is the cue for his recruits to move in and block the path for the swathe of blue lights behind him. It doesn’t stop the helicopter in the sky above them, before it certainly cuts the numbers of the following pack.

But it’s the pursuing police cars that have to bend the rules too where they can. Mounting the side of the road to get through the traffic, both sides of the pursuit are willing to push boundaries to win their particular face off. Needham’s camera is surprisingly unfussy, eschewing quick cuts for making sure we spend plenty of time focusing on the people behind the wheels of the vehicles. It’s a breath of fresh air, viewing Smokey And The Bandit in a modern context. There are no quick cuts, no shaky shots: it’s setting up the pursuits, and watching them go.

What’s lovely about the pursuit is it never feels like there’s cheating going on (save for some creative licence taken in the distance they need to travel – but we’re hardly talking Fast & Furious 8 here). The roads are relatively empty, and quite thin. That leads to a further moment of line crossing, with the inevitable turn onto the grass verge to shake off a pursuing motorcyclist. A quick cut to a wet pond, and it’s fairly clear where said bike is willing to end up. A further police car leaves a state trooper stuck in his vehicle, having landed perfectly on top of a truck.

It’s moments like these that we’ll miss Hal Needham for.

Smokey And The Bandit, in truth, is a forerunner to videogames by some decades, as drivers are willing to find themselves shortcuts, drive where they’re not supposed to, and to find any meaningful way to gain an advantage. What’s more, they all do it with a smile on their face. Well, save for Jackie Gleason, but that’s half of the fun…