1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit now finds itself among the recipients of a film-tribute documentary, the recent non-fiction trend blatantly cashing in on pop culture nostalgia. Some of these films play as intense fan-made love letters (Raiders!), others are more experimental and ambitious (Room 237), though most take the more conventional oral history route (Back in Time). The starting point for these documentaries is the idea that the film in question is so great a cultural object that a documentary about its making or reception is worth more than just an appearance on a special edition DVD.1 Jesse Moss’ The Bandit isn’t quite an oral history of the making of Hal Needham’s directorial debut, though that is what it most resembles, featuring interviews with crew members, Needham and star Burt Reynolds. What really sets the film apart from other behind-the-scenes documentaries is its use of archival footage, a significant portion of which comes from Reynolds’ personal archive. Enlisting footage researcher Rich Remsberg, whose background is in serialised television documentary, Moss is able to draw from old television interviews, stuntman demonstration tapes, The Twilight Zone and even the ill-fated 1974 Burt Reynolds Late Show. As a result, the film name-checked in Moss’ title isn’t really the focus at all, but a central point from which other stories spring out. Tales of production woes are told, of course, but they pale in comparison to the decades-spanning stories of the film’s director and star. This is all to say that The Bandit is really about Burt Reynolds wanting to be a stuntman and Hal Needham wanting to be a famous actor, and how those ambitions are reflected in their respective career choices. That’s a much harder elevator pitch than “it’s a documentary about Smokey and the Bandit,” though.
What makes Needham’s film good fodder for a more typical, nostalgia-driven film-tribute documentary is pretty clear: it’s a filmmaking fairytale. Needham was Burt Reynolds’ long-time stuntman and medium-time roommate who wanted to be a director, so he wrote a script and shopped it around, always with the condition that he were at the helm.2 The star power of Reynolds (not to mention his enduring and recurring “good ol’ boy” personas) improbably got Smokey greenlit at Universal, though the studio were anything but prepared for the film to become a box-office smash. The world premiere was held in New York’s Radio City Music Hall; calling the reception there cold is an understatement. When the film went to the South, though, it became a sensation, its freedom fighting protagonist (including the freedom to drink Coors beer in a state where it was prohibited, of course) became an icon, and the story of the film became that of its financial success: the little guy fighting the establishment (it was the second highest grossing film of the year, after Star Wars).
Though The Bandit might seem an odd change of pace for Moss, whose last feature was the gripping North Dakota-set vérité doc The Overnighters, he’s no stranger to spectacle. His 2004 documentary Speedo followed a group of demolition derby drivers in New Jersey, and 2008’s Full Battle Rattle was a darkly comic look at US Army combat exercises that brought in Afghan-Americans to roleplay as insurgents in the Mojave Desert. What is unusual for Moss is that The Bandit was financed by Country Music Television, whose muscle got a lot of the old footage licensing cleared but whose influence is strongly felt late in the film, as Moss looks at the initial release of Smokey and its subsequent legacy.3 Moss told Filmmaker Magazine that the exploration of the legacy of Smokey “wasn’t a documentary that I was particularly interested in,” which makes sense since reflecting on the eventual legacy of the film forms some of the documentary’s least compelling material; at one point, country musician Toby Keith gets some screentime to let us know that Smokey and the Bandit is “not a B-movie, it’s A++”.
The film’s more interesting elements are its digressive stories. Deftly cut together by Aaron Wickenden, The Bandit muses on the public perception of stuntmen, the iconography of trucker culture and Hal Needham’s failed line of action figurines with equal amounts of fascination. The archival footage is complemented with mostly amusing talking head interviews, with an erudite and playfully immodest Paul Williams a highlight.4 Though the film manages to make older interview footage with the late Needham fit alongside Reynolds in the present day, there is still a pervasive absence in this aspect of the film, though one that is very much gendered. The only woman to be interviewed in The Bandit is Linda McClure, who played Waynette in Smokey; the presence of Sally Field and her stuntwoman, Janet Brady, might have tempered the sense that this film is as much for as about those good ol’ boys.
The focus on male friendship, though, does drive a lot of the film—it even ends by leaning on the enduring friendship between Reynolds and the late Needham. Whilst that acts as a neat conclusion, it’s their separate legacies that are ultimately more interesting. Moss seems to, on some level, acknowledge this; only a final titlecard tells us anything about the pair’s post-Smokey working relationship, which failed to replicate the flash-in-the-pan success of their breakout hit. In this restricted timeline, though, Moss presents the history of Needham as being just as worth our attention and admiration as that of his former roommate and Hollywood icon. It’s not quite bootlegging but it’s a tall order, efficiently filled.