East Bound and Down

“East bound and down, loaded up and truckin’, A-we gonna do what they say can’t be done.”

It is not likely anyone has grown up in the South and not heard of Smokey and the Bandit before, or better yet, can read those lyrics above without starting to hum, especially if they were alive in the 70s and 80s. Either you have watched the movie, heard the song, or seen the memorabilia and collectibles in your local thrift store. At the very least, you are familiar with the iconic black Pontiac Trans Am and have heard the catchy tune “East Bound and Down.” But as time moves on, and years pass between today and the movie’s original release date in 1977, it is important to recognize what an iconic film it was and what an integral role Texarkana played. In fact, more than the movie’s star-studded cast, Texarkana might have been the real winner, coming to national fame because of the movie’s success.

The movie is only partially set in Texarkana—the premise of the story being about truckers who are paid to illegally haul a load of 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta, Georgia and decide to use a distracting black Pontiac Trans Am to run interference if any police attention is attracted. There’s a runaway bride, an adorable basset hound and plenty of road action, romance, comedy, classic chase scenes and cheeky nicknames to boot.

Texarkana fits nicely into the story. Not only was Texarkana a realistic small but storied town at the time of the movie’s filming, but it had a history in bootlegging and, in general, was known at one time for nefarious activity. In fact, legend has it that bootleggers used to sneak back and forth across state lines to avoid being caught with alcohol during prohibition, so of course Texarkana was the perfect springboard for the movie’s storyline.

The main characters, Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, were popular before the film was released in the late 70s, but the film itself sparked a relationship off-screen between the two and propelled them each further into stardom. They dated for five years before parting ways.

The director, Hal Needham, planned for the movie to be a low budget film, but his friend Reynolds read the script and agreed to star in it, launching the movie into a very different reality. It was the directional debut for Needham, a well-known Hollywood stuntman before the project. 

Burt Reynolds was arguably the most popular male actor in the world at the time of production and would later reveal in his autobiography that the original script for the movie, written on a yellow legal pad, was the “worst script he’d ever read.” Even so, Reynolds agreed to do the movie, and the project ended up being the second-highest grossing movie in the United States in 1977, earning $126 million at the box office and only coming in second to Star Wars.

Most of the dialogue for the movie was improvised on set. Specifically, the famous diner scene between Reynolds and Sheriff Justice, played by Jackie Gleason, was reportedly an on-the-spot decision made by Gleason himself. It is safe to surmise that if the cast had not been star-studded, and filled with a wealth of Hollywood experience, it would not have had a chance. Fortunately for the world, Reynolds, Fields and Gleason, along with the rest of the crew, dedicated time and effort and ended up with instant gold. The movie was even said to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite movie, and he watched it again and again.

The premise of the movie was simple; In 1977, Coors beer was unavailable for sale east of Oklahoma. In fact, it wasn’t nationally distributed until 1986, as it was more of a regional product in the beginning. There has even been some speculation that regional sales were a part of Coors marketing strategy in the early days. Alas, the truth may never be known, but it made a fantastic storyline for a super popular movie in the late 70s, the impact of which we can only speculate.

In an article for Fortune Magazine in 2011, Hal Needham wrote he was inspired to write the script after he was gifted some Coors beer on the set of Gator, put it in his hotel room fridge, and noticed it kept disappearing while he was working. He set a trap, caught the perpetrator, and then sought to understand why the beer was so sought after. It didn’t take long for Smokey and the Bandit to formulate in his creative brain.

The movie itself was a catapult for the ongoing CB radio fad and gave professional truck drivers much popularity as well. It was one of several movies of its time that gave notoriety to the trucking industry and handheld radios, including its precursor Moonrunners and the television series Dukes of Hazard.

The scenes set in Texarkana were not filmed locally, but in Jonesboro, Georgia where the climate is much the same as Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas—hot and muggy in the summers, wet and mild in the winters, and the terrain is full of mature trees and rolling hills. The 48-foot mural trailer pulled in the movie by Reed was manufactured in Lakeside, Texas, by Hobbs Trailer just outside of Ft. Worth. The trailer was also used in The Walking Dead as an Easter egg for viewers 40 years later, one of many fun tributes to the movie that came about in the new millennium.  

In fact, many tributes to the movie have popped up in recent years, including a Bandit Run ride from Texarkana to Jonesboro, Georgia, for a group of Trans Am owners and fans of the movie. The ride took off in 2007 and celebrated the 40th anniversary with a special screening of the movie attended by Reynolds and a re-creation of the famous jump scene in the movie in 2017. There was even a group of truckers that participated in “Snowman’s Run” and raised money for a wounded veteran program in the name of late actor Jerry Reed, who played Snowman in the movie.   

Now, as the 45th anniversary of the movie approaches, more events and tributes are planned to commemorate the film. Texarkana and a few towns in Georgia still have cultural relevance based on the movie which generates tourism and events from time to time, and frequently these towns cash in on the connection to the franchise.

Much to the appeasement of movie fans, rumor has it that a remake television series could be in the works with David Gordon Green and Brian Sides. While there is no way to match the greatness of the original, it is exciting to think about the future of a Smokey and The Bandit series, and what it could mean for Texarkana and the south. It seems a growing popularity of all things 70s, 80s and 90s keeps resurfacing in modern pop culture, including mullets, denim, feathered hair and more. It would only be fitting that this classic throwback make a comeback as well. After all, “The boys are thirsty in Atlanta, and there’s beer in Texarkana, and we’ll bring it back no matter what it takes.”


 

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