Burt Reynolds is gone and with him a different America.
He was in his early 40s when Smokey and the Bandit appeared back in 1977 – at first, regionally. The flick was meant for Southern audiences but grabbed traction and quickly became a national sensation on par with Jaws and Star Wars in terms not only of the money it made but the effect it had on an entire generation of Americans.
Me among them.
I was just a kid, years away from being even big enough to drive let alone legally drive but when I saw that movie I knew I wanted to drive.
The what being a Pontiac Trans Am, like the one Burt drove in the movie. A speedy car – purchased by Burt’s character to clear a path for the big rig full of “bootleg” Coors beer that he bet Big Enos Burdette $80,000 he and his partner (played by Jerry Reed) could drive down to Texarkana, TX to pick up and then drive back to Atlanta with in 28 hours . . . by any means necessary.
What follows is 90 minutes of gear-jamming, cop-flummoxing, tire-squealing, sideways-driving that would almost certainly be considered “terrorism” today.
The Bandit broke every speed law on the books, magnificently. The heroic Trans-Am jumped bridges, assaulted the asphalt and made armed government workers look like the inept and greedy fools everyone knew them to be.
Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice is both an oaf and a bully but in those bygone days, affronting his Authority – as the Bandit did, serially, across several state lines – was not a capital offense.
Buford T. Justice points his finger – but never his gun – at the Bandit. He did not squeal about his saaaaaaafety. Wasn’t all Hut! Hut! Hutted! up in tacticool gear, either. Had he actually caught up with the Bandit, the worst that would have happened to him would have been a really big ticket.
It was all good fun and it reflected the America of that time. Which was the time of the Drive 55 National Maximum Speed Limit, imposed by Richard Nixon ostensibly as a fuel conservation measure (to combat the “energy crisis” of the early-mid 1970s) but which was enforced as an offense against saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety, notwithstanding that faster speeds (most highways had previously been posted 70-75) had been legal and one presumes also saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafe.
The NMSL codified the cynicism of speed enforcement; everyone knew it was the American equivalent of the Mexican mordita – the bribe you give Mexican cops to leave you alone – but without the honesty. A Mexican cop will leave you alone after you give him $20 but an American one wants more than just your money. He is an unofficial agent of the insurance mafia, for one – and of course also a kind of second-tier tax collector for the state. He usually won’t directly take your money; that would be far too above-board.
Instead, he will pretend he is performing some sort of public service by mulcting you.
Audiences in ’77 got this. The Bandit was the hero of the movie; everyone was rooting for him. If someone had whined that his driving was “reckless” or “unsafe,” they’d have received a beating, probably. Nobody buckled up unless they felt like it. They didn’t have to worry about being harassed and collected if they didn’t feel like it. The black and gold Trans-Am lacked air bags but had tire-frying style.
A better America existed then.
One which Burt gave expression to, mirrored. An America which is – tragically – long gone. Today’s America gave a North Korean-style send-off to a goitered warmongering career criminal who did more harm to this country and its people (leaving aside the harm done to other countries and their people) than all of Burt’s burnouts could ever have done.
Today’s uglified America hardly deigned to notice Burt’s passing.
It is a reflection of the sickness of this America.
Burt spent a lifetime entertaining people, not hurting them. He earned money – as opposed to using force to take it from people. He was, according to most accounts, a mensch. A good dude. He sure as hell knew how to show us all how to have a good time.
He’ll be missed – by those who remember.
. . .
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