Life Before Star Wars: The Winners

Originally published on The Solute

As far as action stars go, though, the ’70s didn’t have a bigger one than Clint Eastwood. Like his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man was practically a genre unto himself. If you saw his name above the title, you knew exactly what you were getting: A gritty world and a grim, taciturn antihero, the farthest thing from wide-eyed Luke Skywalker.

The Gauntlet saw him both in front of and behind the camera, playing a burnout, alcoholic cop tasked with taking a witness, Sondra Locke, from Vegas to Phoenix. But a whole lot of people don’t want her to talk, and they do their best to make sure she doesn’t by firing what must be some kind of record for most bullets onscreen. At one point, they shoot up a house so many times the whole darned thing caves in, and that’s not even the climax. For that, Eastwood hijacks a bus and armor-plates it as he drives through a hurricane of bullets in downtown Phoenix. It’s hard not to think of John Mulaney’s take on Public Enemies: “What, were bullets free back then?”

Eastwood’s real-life treatment of Locke can make this a queasy watch, not that you need any real-life subtext to feel uncomfortable about the way he constantly slaps her around and she offers herself up to be raped to distract some bikers from beating on Clint. The movie’s view on other issues, meanwhile, is all over the place. It’s a very post-Watergate affair, where we learn the conspiracy to keep Locke from testifying goes all the way to Eastwood’s own bosses. But he also delivers a whole speech about how he wanted to be a cop because “Cops were the only people I knew who stood for something,” and once the police force learns they’re on the wrong side, they immediately side with Clint. But as far as sheer cartoon violence goes, there were few safer bets in ’77 than this.

One of them was Smokey and the Bandit, a movie that really couldn’t have been made any other time. The decade experienced a brief but intense infatuation with truckers, with everybody and their mother following along with their patter on CB (citizens’ band) radio, impenetrable slang and all (a “smokey,” we learn, is a cop). Also in ’77 — a TV movie called Citizens’ Band from a young Jonathan Demme, and Smokey’s success kicked a whole genre of “tracksploitation” movies into high gear. Director Hal Needham wisely realized that big, lumbering trucks weren’t all that exciting though, so he puts Burt Reynolds’ Bandit in a slick Pontiac Trans Am as a “blocker,” a possibly totally made-up bit of trucker lore, and leaves all the actual trucking to his sidekick Snowman (Jerry Reed).

It’s hard to imagine Smokey happening any later for other reasons too. Lucas’ movie itself was as dusty and dirty as anything in its era, but as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, the default style of action filmmaking turned slick, shiny, and sterile, as if every fight took place in a magazine spread. Smokey and the Bandit’s world is relentlessly glamor-free, and it doesn’t even have the mystique of Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away. This is a rusty, sweaty, deeply mundane world in the backroads of the American South.

The only glamor comes from Burt Reynolds himself, with so much roguish charm it’s easy to see how he became one of the biggest stars of the era. He’s actually not that different from Star Wars’ breakout character Han Solo — also a smuggler, of a less earthbound kind. His flirty bickering with Sally Field’s Frog, a runaway bride he picks up by the side of the road, could have even been the inspiration for the Han/Leia relationship introduced in the sequel.

But the real star of Smokey is the stunts, which have the same “Wait, did I really just see that?” energy of the best Mad Max and John Wick movies, as cars go flying through the air like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and smash each other to bits. It’s that much better because Needham gets the license to go over the top from the broadly but effectively comic tone he sets. Reynolds is a great comic hero, but even better is Honeymooners star Jackie Gleason’s iconic performance as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, a fall guy even Bugs Bunny would kill for, especially in his hilarious feuding with what we’d today call his Large Adult Son (“Hold my hat, boy.”). It’s that much more impressive that Gleason’s able to make this character entertaining since he’s a real hateful piece of work who calls a Black sheriff “boy” and is horrified to learn who he actually is. Then again, Bandit drives around with a great big Confederate flag on his car, so there really aren’t any good options to root for here.

Smokey and the Bandit’s the only movie to equal Star Wars in the action department, and Sorcerer’s the only one that surpasses it. To be fair, Star Wars is working at a bit of a handicap — five viewings and a lifetime of cultural osmosis later, it’s much more predictable than William Friedkin’s white-knuckle road trip. Like Star Wars, Sorcerer doesn’t waste time getting to the action, starting right off the bat with Francisco Rabal as Nilo shooting a man through the head. From there, Friedkin moves on to a sequence of seemingly unconnected scenes on nearly every continent — Amidou as a Palestinean freedom fighter, Bruno Cremer as a crooked French banker, Roy Scheider as an American gangster — that each explode into violence. It all comes together when we find the four of them working together at an oil well somewhere in South America, where they’ve all come to flee their past.

From there they end up transporting two trucks full of volatile nitroglycerin through the jungle. It could blow up any second, and Friedkin skillfully uses that underlying threat to make every scene unbearably tense. He’ll stack the deck against his characters, putting every obstacle the Amazon could offer in their path. Sometimes, he’ll toy with us, like when the crew encounters a fallen tree and we see Amidou slowly, laboriously build an elaborate Rube Goldberg device with some of the nitro, the purpose of each part not becoming apparent until the silence finally breaks and everything blows up spectacularly. And after all the near misses, when the bomb finally goes off, it’s at the most guttingly unexpected moment.

Even though he’s not creating his world from whole cloth, Friedkin still makes his real locations as vivid as any of Star Wars’ exotic settings. Friedkin is able to balance the ugliness of his antiheroes and the capitalist nightmare they live in with the beauty of their surroundings: this is one of the greenest movies ever made. And in the New Mexican desert, he found the perfect nightmarescape for his climax, only one man left standing in a landscape as barren and alien as anything we see on the Death Star.

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Features writer at Looper and staff writer and editor at The Solute twitter.com/BurgundySuit

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