Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sam Peckinpah's descent in the 70s wasn't pretty to watch. After his brilliant Westerns his pictures became erratic, self-referential and leaned toward pointless exploitation of the violence he once claimed wasn't his central cinematic goal. By the time 1977 rolled around Peckinpah had such a reputation for troublemaking and blithering waste that making movies was a strange substance-fueled activity far removed from the days when he directed with drive and spirit.
Convoy was such a joke when it came out (at least in California) that Savant never saw it. A commercial trifle built around car crashes and a then current Trucker/C.B. Radio craze, it's a dated eyesore attempting to cash in on various rube fads. As almost every scene has big trucks in motion it certainly moves, but it plays like a miserable parody of itself. As such, it's a fascinating mess to contemplate.
Feisty independent truckers Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson), Pig Pen (Burt Young) and others tangle with crooked Arizona Sheriff Lyle Wallace, known as Cottonmouth (Ernest Borgnine) and become wanted fugitives, racing their big rigs Eastward in a difficult-to-stop juggernaut. Rubber Duck picks up a frisky photographer, Melissa (Ali MacGraw) en route. The runaway Convoy becomes a federal case and a state governor (Seymour Cassel) tries to co-opt it as a vote-getting symbol of freedom. But Rubber Duck has to question what he's doing, as he and and his accomplices are defying the law and guaranteeing themselves prison terms for reasons they can't articulate. Meanwhile, lots of cars and trucks crash.
In 1978, America was soaked to the gills in phony countrified corn. The Dukes of Hazzard peddled Daisy Maes in tight cutoff jeans going 'Oh!' when fast cars (minimum 2 per episode) vaulted hidden ramps and flipped in the air. Claude Akins was shoveling the regional dialect on prime time. Real rural Americans should have been insulted.
Somewhere in this cultural mess B.W.L. (Bill) Norton concocted a hi-concept story that made cash registers ring in Hollywood. A cannonball caravan of truckers, see, squawkin' on their CeeBees and sportin' with the waitresses in the backs of their cabs. Kris Kristofferson shows off his muscles. Ali MacGraw is in for the sleek crowd with her model's looks. What a great odd couple! Shove in redneck sheriffs, ineffectual authorities and a massive public groundswell of support for the anarchic anti-law truckers, and you've got a great Capra finish! All set to the hit radio song Convoy.
By this time Peckinpah was barely able to function on a movie set. Convoy had six first assistant directors and many more second assistants, among them trusted associates of Peckinpah covertly directing when he was too wiped out to know which end was up. James Coburn is on record as rushing to help an old buddy, then telling him off and going out to set up a shot on his own.
This is a second-unit movie anyway. A love of big rig tractor-trailer interstate trucks will an asset for watching this, because that's what we see for about 90 minutes of this marathon road picture: trucks cruising, roaring down dusty dirt roads, overturning, running roadblocks. Yerhoo, it don't get better than that, ma.
The technical work is actually quite fine. It really looks as if Kristofferson (a lo-o-o-ng way from his academic and folk-singing heights) is muscling those gearshifts, and good matching never lets us think that all the cab interiors were done separately. The moving camera is fluid and helicopter and slow-mo footage cuts together rather well.
The story is simply a crock that asks us to believe that asinine irresponsibility is a good response to frustration with the law. Rubber Duck and his pinhead convoy express America's growing discontent with the inconvenience of being governed in a way that only someone with 4 beers in him could appreciate. Audiences everywhere had responded to the somewhat irresponsible 'give 'em the finger' fantasies of the Smokey and the Bandit- type movies, and it has to
be admitted that there's room for that kind of thing. But Convoy seems made by, about, and for the nabob country morons lampooned in John Landis' The Blues Brothers, the kind that throw beer bottles at on-stage performers.
The brawling confrontation (in pointless slow-mo, naturally) that starts the convoy is a thin pretext, and the attempt to make Rubber Duck's interstate pursuit into a pop crusade is a joke. Production-wise it's all there, but all that's expressed is the pigheaded resolve of our pouting American Hero to come out on top. Rubber Duck eventually sneaks out of the whole convoy anyway, a little too much like an aimless Billy the Kid deciding to make a right turn and head to Mexico. Even kids will realize that that's not going to get Rubber Duck anywere. Most viewers wonder what will happen to the goods (and livestock) being shipped in the big trucks! Civil revolt fantasies never worry about details.
Most of the cast are previous Peckinpah actors who rallied to help their director for 'one last go-round, doing it right.' They must have been surprised to be left to direct themselves. Kristofferson's character is a waste but his personal charisma is going full tilt and he comes out okay. Lean suntanned Ali MacGraw now can drive a Jaguar like a pro 1 but her every dialogue line sounds ridiculously false. The rest of the cast makes little impact; Borgnine's vicious Sheriff is a tired cliché with no resonance. It's a movie out of a cereal box.
By the time the film hit theaters it had gone wildly over budget, effectively throwing the brakes on Peckinpah's career. It did moderately well, but was the Gigli of its year, the kind of joke that people used as evidence to prove that Hollywood had its head up its exhaust manifold. The CB craze was already waning, and only a year later the tin-ear title song that inspired the movie was ... a year-old tin-ear novelty song.
Cheezy Flicks' DVD of Convoy isn't as bad as the packaging would suggest. The transfer is grainy and somewhat washed out, but in the original Panavision ratio and enhanced for 16:9. The sound is adequate. There are no extras, but for a budget release from a suspect label, this looks good. Cheezy Flicks puts its logo right over the EMI logo that should open the film, a move that one think could cause trouble even for a public domain release. The disc packaging is cheap but adequate. It does call itself a 'special edition' but doesn't bother to mention the 16:9 enhancement.
Every western fan still alive and kicking is hotly awaiting Warners' Peckinpah Western Box this coming January. Anticipating those great films makes one anxious to see everything else the director made, but with certain exceptions the rest of Peckinpah's later output is rather depressing. Convoy is good evidence that nobody destroyed Sam Peckinpah's career but himself, and is a movie to remember when watching docus that laud him as a cinematic poet brought low by Evil Hollywood. I watch Ride the High Country, Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch
periodically, respect a couple more of his films, and some day want to see a 'scope print of The Deadly Companions or a long version of Cross of Iron. He's a fascinating guy who really blew the opportunities of a charmed life.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2005
1. Ali accepted her getaway
driver role in The Getaway without telling Peckinpah she couldn't drive. Steve McQueen had
to give her a crash course in how to hold the wheel, lessons which developed into a big romance
(see The Kid Stays in the Picture. Now
married to McQueen, her first marital duty was probably to win a stock car race.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson