See Also: Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy
By Joshua Cornelius
The late 70s were a weird time, that much I gleaned from being a kid growing up in the early 80s, as the remnants of the bygone decade were everywhere. I often think that the cultural impact of a decade really begins in the middle (in the case ’75) and lasts roughly until the middle of the next decade (’85). In this turbulent span of time, jingoistic entertainment was the order of the day, a trend that would pave the way for the glisteningly muscled hyper-masculine action hero that would dominate movie screens during the Reagan era. Reagan had the cold war agenda to push, and for that, films were never without a fresh stock of faceless baddies. Conversely, films of the 70s were all about “the man” – the same government that had sent young men to die in a fruitless war and whose corruption revealed an unfathomable deceit against an unwitting populace. Big films of the 70s were all about taking a stand against the man who holds the strings.
Enter Convoy, Sam Peckinpah’s “sell-out” film for the masses based on a popular country song that was originally written for a commercial. The film he made because he was allegedly desperate for a big box office hit. He sure got it… and the only cost seems to be that the film has become all but forgotten. Convoy is to Smokey & The Bandit as Torque is to The Fast and the Furious. Landing someone like Peckinpah to direct was a bit like hiring Scorsese for a Go-Bots film – it just didn’t make sense to anyone. Garner Simmon’s bio claims that Sam’s friends were on that same wavelength and thought he was nuts to pick up something so shallow and commercial.
I don’t want to say the plot is fairly rote, as there really is no basis for comparison, but it is somehow exactly that. Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) is a truck driver, unwittingly lead into a cat and mouse game with state police (represented by Ernest Borgnine in a role that is as close to the physical embodiment of Chief Wiggum as we’ve yet come) during a long-haul transit. Along the way he picks up Melissa (Ali McGraw), a bronze, one-dimensional sexed up photographer, and a few other sympathetic truckers who form a conga line headed towards Mexico with the police in hot pursuit. Suffice it to say, a lot of stuff happens, the cops bungle the job at every turn and Rubber Duck and Melissa hook-up just like you knew they would from the moment you saw their names in the credits.
As desperate as Peckinpah may have been for a hit, he was not about to let a film so exceedingly audience friendly mar his resume without at least a little adjusting. It’s not readily apparent what influence Sam had on the script, but by films end, Rubber Duck is something of an unwitting freedom fighter. His dogged ambition to keep moving forward, away from the cops and towards Mexico, becomes the impetus for an outpouring of national support. The Duck becomes, in effect, Forrest Gump during his running years. A man who stands for nothing that somehow means everything to everyone. The Duck doesn’t make any ham-fisted proclamations on the role of government or law enforcement, but he doesn’t need to. For Peckinpah, the sketch of a character is more than enough for audiences to attach themselves to… and for the most part, he’s right.
Convoy was a hit in spite of itself. Peckinpah was allegedly “indisposed” for much of the filming… by which I mean drunk or coked out. Peckinpah’s friend James Coburn was supposed to have taken up the slack as “second unit director” during these instances. By all accounts, the entire film was a family affair – as much of the crew and stars Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine had all worked with Peckinpah previously. Still, there’s next to nothing (outside of cinematography) that would lead you to surmise that Peckinpah had directed it.
The Peckinpah catalog has inspired a great many works, and not half of them have been particularly great. When you brush aside the John Woo’s, Luc Besson’s and the Takeshi Kitano’s, you have the remakes and the thousands of other films that have (perhaps unwittingly) tried to employ Peckinpah’s editing and shooting techniques with little success. One one hand, Peckinpah was an incredibly talented, irreplaceable commodity in the film landscape. On the other, he’s indirectly responsible for hundreds of shitty action films and the rise of chaos cinema. I don’t want to say that Convoy is dunder-headed because it’s heart is in the right place, but it is almost certainly the kind of film that helped ignite a tradition of throw-away summer tentpole films. The kind that gives you two hours of carnage, sex and metal wrapped in a message, and then sends you reeling back out of the air conditioning into the hot summer sun – with a happy ending that will leave your head before the popcorn leaves your stomach.
*** It should be noted that the version of Convoy I saw came from Netflix Streaming, the quality of which I would deem barely passable. By which I mean the film looks like it was recovered half-digested from the stomach of a shark, subsequently deep fried, photocopied and then smeared with vaseline before being digitized and served up piping hot on the world’s favorite service to stream lame, forgotten movies and soft-core horror porn.