By Thom Bennett
Labelled “lesser Peckinpah” by film snobs, Bloody Sam’s 1978 film “Convoy” became a staple of early 80s afternoon TV, a dismissed one-off from one of the greats. But “Convoy” is, at its core, a Western with eighteen-wheelers instead of horses, and is not as far removed from the more revered of Peckinpah’s films as you might think.
Inspiration often comes from the strangest places. In the curious case of “Convoy,” the film was inspired by and based almost word for word on the unlikely 1976 hit song of the same name C.W. McCall, a ploy to cash in on America’s bizarre if not brief obsession with citizens band radio (that’s C.B to you uninitiated types). The song, about a band of outlaw truckers led by the oddly monikered Rubber Duck and their tenuous relationship with the law, pretty much sums up the resulting film, if one chooses to completely disregard the sheer Peckinpah-ness of the final product.
By the time production on “Convoy” began, cinematic legend and poet of violence Sam Peckinpah was not in the greatest of shape either career-wise or personally. After a recent string of less than blockbuster films, including “Straw Dogs,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Junior Bonner,” none of which would receive their due until years later, Peckinpah was a persona non grata in Hollywood. Add to this his long history of battling studios over his films and his now-legendary drug and alcohol intake, and what you had was a recipe for disaster. While history would prove his studio clashes to be justified when eventual “director’s cut” re-releases of several of his films prompted a critical reassessment, at this point in his career he was regarded as little more than a pain in the ass a coked-out and paranoid maker of out-of-vogue Westerns. His name still commanded a certain amount of reverence among cinemaphiles, but his track record and state at the time certainly made him a curious choice to helm what was designed to be little more than a quick cash-in of a film.
By all accounts, the filming was a nightmare. Shooting had to be shut down temporarily when leading man and afore-mentioned Rubber Duck Kris Kristofferson had to go on tour. There were constant script revisions Peckinpah’s grasping at straws for some deeper meaning in the simple story, and struggling with the logistics of working with such large machines. Eventually Peckinpah became disinterested and handed the film over to his editors to complete.
While “Convoy” was neither a critical or box office success (having been beaten to the big screen by the similar “Smokey and the Bandit”), no less a luminary than the late Pauline Kael described “Convoy” as “Sam Peckinpah’s happy-go-lucky ode to truckers on the road a sunny, enjoyable picture with only ketchup being splattered.” The ketchup spilling she refers to takes place in an early fight scene in which Peckinpah seems to be poking fun at himself through over-the-top use of his trademark slow motion in a simple rest stop punch-up.
Despite the film’s many shortcomings, not the least of which a mind-numbingly bad performance by Ali MacGraw, “Convoy” shoudn’t be dismissed as a total misfire in the Peckinpah canon there’s more than enough of what made him a great filmmaker here to behold. He turns a simple tale of truckers traveling from point A to point B while avoiding the long arm of the law (in the form of one scenery-chewing Ernest Borgnine) into nothing less than a tale of redemption, a commentary on racism and, ultimately, a Christ allegory. Peckinpah loved dwelling on a way of life that was disappearing and a code of loyalty among men that was no longer adhered to. Much like himself, his heroes were flawed characters who were ill at ease with the way the world was changing around them. As the film drives on along interstates and through dusty deserts, you can almost see Peckinpah struggling with the nature of these modern-day outlaws, his own life and what the hell it is that his film is ultimately about. “Convoy” looks and feels like a Peckinpah film and shares a heart though somewhat weakened with the titles that made him a legend.
He would make only one more film after “Convoy,” the equally derided “The Osterman Weekend,” but that, my friends, is a discussion for another day. “Convoy,” in the meanwhile, remains a flawed and interesting film from a flawed and interesting man.
“Bastard Cinema,” musings on the lesser works of the greater filmmakers, appears every other week at IFC News.