Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1978)

13. Convoy

For years, I've always assumed Sam Peckinpah ended up directing “Convoy,” a movie based on a novelty country song, because he had no other options left by 1978. A truckers-ploitation flick certainly does not seem like a project becoming of the director of “The Wild Bunch.” This is basically true, as the director really needed a hit, but is not quite the whole story. Peckinpah was offered the project while still working on “Cross of Iron.” He agreed to make the movie only if he was given complete creative control. Naturally, the trouble began almost immediately. Despite a hellish production, “Convoy” would still go on to become a hit. In fact, it is the highest grossing film of Peckinpah's entire career, making 45 million dollars and becoming the twelfth most popular film of the year.

A long-ranged trucker known as the Rubber Duck meets a photographer named Melissa on the open road. She soon agrees to ride with him. Immediately afterwards, he incurs the wrath of Sheriff Lyle Wallace, a small town cop with a grudge against truckers. After Wallace attempts to arrest Spider Mike, a fellow trucker and friend of the Duck, the truckers beat up the cop. A band of truckers – with names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty – rally around Rubber Duck as he heads on the road. Soon, the truckers have formed a mighty convoy and are all being pursued by the cops.

“Convoy” is a textbook definition of a “fad” movie. The film was made to cash in on the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the late seventies. Other examples of C.B.-sploitation include the previous year's “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Breaker Breaker,” and “Handle with Care” as well as TV shows like “B.J. and the Bear” and “Movin' On.” The film, of course, is also based on C.W. McCall's novelty song of the same name, also made to cash in on the C.B. craze, making it one of the few films based on a pop hit. In fact, it's a pretty close adaptation of McCall's “Convoy.” The bear in the air, the Jimmy haulin' hogs, and the long haired Friends of Jesus and their chartreuse microbus all put in appearance. Then again, the film deviates from McCall's song by ending with a blazing machine gun and a huge explosion. That's how you can tell Sam Peckinpah directed this movie.

One of the reason C.B. radio became a fad in the seventies is do to truckers becoming something like outlaw figures, using convoys to fight the nationwide enforcement of a 55 mile-an-hour speed limit. With this in mind, it's possible to see some parallels between “Convoy” and the western archetypes Peckinpah frequently employed. If the truckers are outlaws, the Rubber Duck is a legendary figure like Billy the Kid or Jesse James (Who he's directly compared to.) Cops and other “bears” like Wallace are comparable to the sheriffs and deputies chasing the outlaws. Truck stops are like saloons. The eighteen-wheelers are like horses. Supposedly, these connections are what attracted the director to the material in the first place.

And it's fair to say that Peckinpah inserted some of his pet themes into what amounts to a rip-off of “Smokey and the Bandit.” The truckers have a special bond, due to their weird lingo and mutual disregard for authority, similar to the men-on-a-mission seen all throughout Peckinpah's filmography. They have their own form of honor as well, best displayed when they destroy a prison in order to free Spider Mike, a black trucker brutalized and arrested by the cops. That honor runs into commerce, as in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and “Ride the High Country,” when politicians try to cash-in on the Rubber Duck's popularity. Even in a project as demonstrably dumb as this, Peckinpah makes room for questions about brotherhood and capitalism.

Peckinpah also brought some of his visual trademarks to the table as well. The truck driver's sweaty cabs are ideal for the kind of cramped interior shots the director has employed his entire career. The slow-motion shots of violence are maintained. Instead of being saved for shots of guys being gunned down, they are used for shots of guys being slammed across truck stop bars. Or a bizarre slow-mo sequence of trucks driving through the Arizona desert, kicking up huge clouds of dust. There's also an attempt at some “Wild Bunch”-style editing, the film cutting quickly between Kristofferson's eyes and his truck crushing a barricade, but the results are just awkward.

Despite Peckinpah's many attempts to add some grit to the material, “Convoy” still comes off as an excessively corny movie. This is most apparent in the movie's sense of humor. You see it in the slow-mo truck stop brawl, where the cook and waitress make goofy comments over the fight. Borgnine's Wallace accosts a pair of teenage stoners, forcing the kids to quickly hide their pot by eating it. This results in the cop driving around in a ridiculous dragster with flames painted on the side. The cops are frequently targets of ridicule. Such as one deputy who gets stuck behind a watering truck, his windshield wipers going constantly. It's all very hammy and silly. At one point, Peckinpah even seems aware of what a bad fit this stuff is for his style, when he utilizes his trademark slow motion for a ridiculous sight: Chickens falling from a wrecked barn.

This corniness also manifests in the film's soundtrack. Naturally, McCall's titular song makes an appearance. In fact, McCall wrote and recorded a new version of his hit to accompany the song. It appears several time throughout the film, subtitles on-screen sometime directly quoting the lyrics. This is not the only campy country song on the soundtrack, as songs with titles like “Cowboys Don't Get Lucky All the Time,” “Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” and “I Cheated on a Good Woman's Love” can also be heard. Moreover, Chip Davis' score is completely ridiculous. Burning banjos and wangy mouth harps frequently score the action scenes. You'll notice these as instruments that make pretty much anything funny. 

All of these problems likely meant little to the audiences who saw “Convoy” the most. They were there to see guys driving around in fucking trucks, smashing into shit. And, yes, “Convoy” certainly delivers on that. There's several huge vehicular stunts. An eighteen-wheeler smashes through the wall of a prison, real trucks plowing into real walls. There's a totally silly, though admittedly entertaining, stunt of a car driving through a religious billboard and landing in a barn. Two trucks squeeze a police car between them. Some of the stunts weren't even planned. A shot of a truck flipping was caught on camera and Peckinpah kept it in the movie. It's all pretty neat, from a stunt work perspective.

Playing the role of McCall's Rubber Duck is Kris Kristofferson, in his third collaboration with Peckinpah. It's a part well suited to Kristofferson's abilities as an actor. Kris has a folksy charm, which makes sense for a trucker. He's able to spit the ridiculous C.B. chatter and goofy folkisms about ducks with conviction. He also brings a laconic attribute to the part, manifesting as the Duck's ambivalence to his folk hero status. I guess if someone had to bring the Rubber Duck to life, Kris was probably the best choice. Oddly, despite the amount of country music on the soundtrack, Kristofferson doesn't sing once in the movie.

Peckinpah actually fills the film with quite a few familiar faces. Ernest Borgnine, who hadn't worked with the director since “The Wild Bunch,” plays Sheriff Wallace. It's a mostly thankless role, a hard-bitten villain, but Borgnine brings some charm to the part. Ali McGraw reappears from “The Getaway,” sharing some decent romantic chemistry with Kristofferson. However, McGraw is still playing a fairly thin love interest role, fairly inessential to the plot. Paul Young, coming back from “The Killer Elite,” appears as Love Machine, A.K.A. Pig Pen, another trucker. Though Young is not the most believable cowboy, he's certainly having fun hamming it up in the role.

It's been supposed before that a movie about the production of “Convoy” would probably be more interesting than the actual film. Peckinpah feuded with producers all throughout filming, in addition to heavily abusing alcohol and cocaine. Production went over schedule, necessitating a break in filming when Kristofferson had to go on tour. Peckinaph added elements of social commentary, especially concerning police brutality against black people and politicians co-opting of social movements, into the film. This was against the wishes of the producers, who wanted a light-weight popcorn movie. His director's cut was supposedly over three hours long, serious in tone, and featured none of the songs on the soundtrack. Once again, he was locked out of the editing room, with the film's producers emphasizing comedy and action.

As fascinating as Peckinpah's intended version of “Convoy” probably would've been, I can't imagine anyone watching a 200 minute long movie based off a fucking novelty song about truckers. Despite being a potentially embarrassing oddity in Peckinpah's career, “Convoy” has become a cult classic. Tarantino stuck the Rubber Duck hood ornament in “Death Proof” and I've occasionally seen it in real life. Maybe this is because the movie is just unbelievably goofy, maybe because its story of outlaw truckers genuinely resonates with some people. Either way, it's a very silly, if occasionally very entertaining, film. [Grade: C+]

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