In the 70s, the film industry was an interesting beast. Films pushed the boundaries of violence, sex, and drugs, yet some of the best films of our history can out during this period. This was also the time when stuntmen had their glory days in the shadows. The action swelled and these men created a world where the choreographed sequences blurred the lines of reality. The new documentaryThe Bandit brings a much needed spotlight to this era, the stuntman’s bravery through stuntman-director Hal Needham.
Needham may not be a household name, but it’s guaranteed that you have seen his work. An impressive career starting back in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until he met Burt Reynolds that things began to grow in a riveting way. He not only became Reynold’s stunt double, but he also became a dear friend.
The friendship these men shared is one of the greatest Hollywood relationships we’ve seen play out in the media. They were the perfect filmatic pair, with Needham making Reynolds look good on film as his double; and with Reynolds unfaltering support for Needham, he became the star in Needham’s directorial debut. One wanted to be a star in front of the camera, and one wanted to be a star in the stunt world; at times it was hard to tell who of these men fit into each of these categories at any given time.
The film bounces between different elements of Needham and Reynold’s life, both professor and personal. It was a fascinating period, and the back and forth enhances the story. The audience never feels like a bouncing ball through life, instead they are a fly on the wall of history. Both these men have had an extensive career through many decades and manifestations. But nothing will match the epic Needham-Reynolds era.
The Bandit may showcase the friendship and the world of stunts they shared, but at the film’s center is the iconic story of how Smokey and the Bandit got made. Stories like these turn normal productions into legends. Stories like these live in infamy. For its day Smokey and the Bandit was a risk, a movie directed by a stuntman and a story that revolved around beer trucks and sidestepping the authorities.
In reality, though, it was the start of something great. It was the start of movies being made more for the audiences and less about studio obligation. People who normally staying in the shadows had their day in the spotlight and stories told on film. One of these groups was the stunt community.
In todays climate, the battle for recognition has started to heat up, where increasing awareness is finding it’s way to the stunt community. The grandfather of this awareness undoubtedly is Needham. Himself and his friends literally risked their lives for what they did for a living, for what they loved to do. Thanks to Needham and his yearn for the spotlight, audience realized that it wasn’t the actors in the cars as they went over a cliff. It’s not that he wanted to take all the credit, he was always about the actor’s perception, he just wanted to help dispel the shadows.
From his appearance on talk shows to the stunts created for the movie, Needham helped usher in a new era of action film, one that continues to this day. The success of Smokey and the Bandit also helped raise the star of both Needham and Reynolds. This was the first of five films that they worked together on, and the creation of several cult classics.
A fascinating documentary about friendship and film, The Bandit is an exciting ride through the epic tale of an iconic film. Needham may no longer be with us, but his legacy will transcend time.
The Bandit plays at SXSW with multiple showing all week. Showtimes and locations can be found on the film’s SXSW page.
Written by Lisa Mejia