Problematic Movies of the 80s | The Cannonball Run (1981)

Problematic Movies of the 80s | The Cannonball Run (1981)

Looking back on my coming of age — the halcyon days of the early 1980s — there are a surprising number of movies that stick in mind as hysterical. Flashes of moments attached to films that I saw once and never again that loom large in my mind as being classics of the day. One of those is the Burt Reynolds’ vehicle The Cannonball Run.

I recall mostly how the scenes where Dom DeLouise couldn’t keep his shit together and would break on camera, cracking himself up as well as Reynolds. I loved Smokey and The Bandit, The Longest Yard, and Burt was just one of those cool, Alpha-males with a sense of humor that I idolized.

Yup. Just like my teenage horn-brain remembered…

Yup. Just like my teenage horn-brain remembered…

Burt was just a badass. Like Joe Namath (never a football fan, so it wasn’t that) in C.C. Ryder, Burt exemplified a sexy, charming thumbed nose at authority, a masculine rebellion, and the epitome of the All American Male. Also, in my limited recollection, were scenes with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as lots of scenes of Adrienne Barbeau showing off her impressive rack.

In preparing to re-watch The Cannonball Run again, after almost 40 years, I was surprised by a few things.

  • The movie was written by Brock Yates, who was an actual participant in the actual Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a transnational 30-hour car race conceived by he and fellow Car and Driver editor Steve Smith. The first run was not a real competitive race, as there was only one team running, but intended both as a celebration of the United States Interstate Highway System and a protest against strict traffic laws coming into effect at the time.

  • The race had only one rule: "All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner."

  • Director Hal Needham (a former stunt driver turned director who solidified his box office street crew from 1979s Smokey and The Bandit) and Yates drove the exact Dodge Tradesman ambulance in the 1979 race and many of the moments Burt and Dom encounter were based upon true events.

It was difficult to find a streaming copy of the film but I managed to find one on YouTube.

The Cannonball Run
Written by Brock Yates
Directed by Hal Needham

Effectively a series of sight gags involving stars of the day and mishaps with cars, evading police and lots of Burt Reynolds being Burt Reynolds, this is some slim stuff, indeed. It’s obvious that Yates is a racer not a writer and Needham directs it like a poorly shot TV movie. The odd meta of Roger Moore (the day’s James Bond) playing Roger Moore, the actor, who has access to lots of Bond stuff isn’t funny so much as weird, Dean Martin looks like he’s had even more liquor than he can handle in this thing, and watching Tillis stutter as a gimmick to get laughs is more uncomfortable than funny.

There is, however, Burt.

Problematic Moments & Themes

Oh, Christ. I’m not sure I can categorize them, there are so many.

Broad racial stereotypes are present in almost every scene in the film. Jackie Chan is a Japanese driver who, with his horny assistant, drives a computerized car, is incompetent and each scene they’re in is accompanied by the *ching chong* music associated only with the Orient. Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis play white trash idiots. Jamie Farr is an Arab Sheik with multiple wives, a Rolls Royce, and camels. 

Sexism is almost second to driving fast as a theme. Adrienne Barbeau, indeed, shows her impressive jugs in every scene she’s in, using her sex globes to mesmerize cops into getting out of tickets until she’s pulled over by Valarie Perrine (also she of a massive set of milk bags.) Farrah Fawcett is simply named “Beauty,” talks about humping under trees, is kidnapped by Burt and Dom, drugged against her will, and woo’d by lines like:

“This isn’t what I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“I dunno. Gang rape?”

“Oh, Beauty. We’re racers not rapers.”

In fact, Fawcett is so completely a prop for Burt’s charms, that it boggles the mind that any female associated with this thing didn’t start burning shit down on set. As they say, those were the times and to indicate, with whole careers launched by 25-year-old women in bikinis can be found on Instagram, that things have drastically changed would be wishful thinking.

Except that it’s Burt, right?

Does It Hold Up?

No. I mean, not at all. 

I wish I was Burt but I’m probably a lot more Dom. Himmel is the guy behind them, though, so I have at least that…

I wish I was Burt but I’m probably a lot more Dom. Himmel is the guy behind them, though, so I have at least that…

Even if one can look past the myriad retrograde attitudes about women and ethnicities, it’s so poorly written and directed, not much could save it. Not even Burt. In fact, the only redeemable thing about this is the only thing I actually remembered loving it for: the outtakes at the end. Watching DeLouise and Reynolds crack each other up seems to be the only lasting impression on my tiny 15-year-old brain. The closing credits music, however, is just fucking weird.


Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it

The Cannonball Run gets an 8

Next up: Class (1983) 

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