The year 1977 was a banner year for Hollywood. Several iconic films were released that year, including Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Saturday Night Fever. Star Wars alone dominated, giving way to an appetite for science fiction. Meanwhile, Saturday Night Fever tapped into the disco fever of the 70s. Not to be left out, car chase fans got their iconic film, Smokey and the Bandit.
The plot of Smokey and the Bandit is simple. Bandit, played by Burt Reynolds, and the Snowman, played by Jerry Reed, need to get a truckload of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. At the time, Coors beer wasn’t available east of Texas due to an arrangement between Coors and Anhauser-Busch. Hauling a cargo of the beer was essentially bootlegging and, well, illegal. To distract the police during the cargo run, Bandit takes an advance on the payment to get a Trans Am to use to flush out roadblocks, giving the Snowman and his dog, Fred, open highway.
Along the way, an unexpected complication jumps into Bandit’s car. Carrie, played by Sally Field, left her fiancé at the altar and wants out of the county. Adding to the complexity, Carrie’s ex is the son of the Smokey, one Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason. Sheriff Justice didn’t take the jilting of his son well, and starts his chase, completely unaware that there is a truck full of illegal beer involved. Most of the police are unaware of the beer in Snowman’s truck; Bandit becomes enough of a distraction that Snowman can keep the hammer down and speed with impunity.
Car chase movies exist solely for the automotive stunts. Plots don’t have to be elaborate, and Smokey and the Bandit‘s is more than enough for the vehicular carnage that ensues. The pull for these movies is in the chase; everything else is secondary. To be fair, all the main characters in Smokey and the Bandit have a motive for what they’re doing. Bandit and the Snowman want to win the $80 000 bet; Carrie is running away from a wedding she knows is wrong for her; and Sheriff Justice wants to stop and arrest the man who kidnapped his son’s bride.
Two more theatrical sequels followed, the first following the fallout of Bandit and Carrie breaking up, the second with Sheriff Justice trying and failing to adjust to a life of retirement. Smokey and the Bandit 2 held together well enough, going back to the core of the car chase. Smokey and the Bandit 3, however, went far overboard in the writing. Jackie Gleason pulled off the role, but the rest fell short.
Fast-forwarding, we reach the year 1994. The 500-channel universe hasn’t yet arrived, but both Bruce Springsteen and “Weird Al” Yankovic had commented on the number of hours to be filled; the former with “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” in 1992, the latter with “I Can’t Watch This” in 1993 with the line, “I hooked up 80 channels, and each one stunk”. While The Real World had started on MTV in 1992, the reality show explosion would go off in 2000 with the debut of Survivor on CBS. The airwaves and cable channels had to find programming somewhere, and syndication was hitting its stride. Universal Television responded to the need with its Action Pack, a number of movies meant for syndication. The Action Pack included Hercules: The Legendary Journeys*, TekWar, based on the novels by William Shatner, the Midnight Run films, based on the movie starring Robert DeNiro, and the Bandit movies, based on Smokey and the Bandit.
Four Bandit movies were made, with Hal Needham, creator and director of Smokey and the Bandit, as the executive producer and director. With Burt Reynolds working on the final season of Evening Shade, a new actor was needed. Brian Bloom, who would go on to play Pike in the adaptation of The A-Team, got the role. A few changes were made with the supporting cast. The Snowman and Carrie weren’t around; instead, Lynn Denton, son of the governor, was introduced as the Bandit’s best friend, and each movie had its own romantic interest. While the movies did have chase sequences, the focus turned to Bandit and his endeavors and complications. Bandit: Bandit Goes Country has him returning to his hometown to clear up long-standing feuds and meet up with an old girlfriend. Bandit: Bandit Bandit has him tracking down an imposter of himself who had stolen a prototype alternate fuel car. Bandit: Beauty and the Bandit has him helping a woman, played by Kathy Ireland**, on the run from both mobsters, federal agents, and a bounty hunter. Bandit: Bandit’s Silver Angel sees him stepping forward to help a circus owned by his late uncle.
The Bandit movies wound up in an odd position. For low budget TV movies, they were watchable and fun. However, by carrying the Bandit name, comparisons to the original would happen, and a theatrical release where cars could be abused and junked has the edge over a series of TV movies where repairs eat into the budget. At the same time, without the link to Smokey and the Bandit, the movies might get ignored or, worse, be thought of as a rip-off of the original work. Television adaptations also have a different flow thanks to the need for commercial breaks. A theatrical release can keep building to a big ending, adding ebbs to let the audience catch a breather. On TV, the requirement for advertisements means that, every ten to fifteen minutes, the movie needs to have a mini-cliffhanger to ensure viewers return after the ad. Viewing a TV show or a made-for-TV movie on DVD, with no commercial, can become choppy as a result.
Overall, the Bandit movies are fun for what they are, low-budget TV movies. Brian Bloom’s Bandit is clearly the same as Burt Reynold’s, a man who gets by on charm and can wind up over his head as a result. With Hal Needham on board as producer and director, the TV movies could keep to the core of the originals and move away from the car chase without losing the identity.
Next week, the February adaptational news round up.
* And, later, the Hercules spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess.
** Kathy’s southern accent is far more easy to listen to than her squeaky voice in Alien from LA.