Convoy (1978)

The Principals: Director: Sam Peckinpah.  Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young.

The Premise: Rebellious truck driver Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kristofferson) is just cruising down the open highway, doing his thing, when a sexy girl (McGraw) in a Jaguar drives by. They engage in a little road foreplay, and he’s pulled over by a cop.   Rubber Duck gleefully informs the cop that she was flashing him, and the cop speeds away after her, leaving Duck free to go. 

Duck is a rascal! His behavior has made him a legend, and when Love Machine / Pig Pen (Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye) hear him on the old CB, they pull in behind him. What a laugh! Life as a trucker is so awesome … unless Sheriff “Dirty Lyle / Cottonmouth” Wallace (Borgnine) has tapped into your frequency and encouraged you to speed.   Wallace lets them off with a massive bribe, and he and Duck stare each other down. They’re old foes, you see, but also uncomfortably similar. They’re independent, beholden to no man, and there’s not many of them left.

Duck, Love Machine, and Spider Mike pull into a diner.  Duck heads off to get some birthday lovin’ with a waitress named Violet.   But there’s more than one kinky broad in this joint. Melissa, the sexy Jaguar owner, is there too. She’s inexplicably selling off her clothes, and needs a ride.  Duck agrees to drive her.     And then all hell breaks loose. Pig Pen and Spider Mike get on the CB to mock Wallace, Wallace figures out where they are, and kicks off a fight that leaves the diner trashed and two cops injured.

Knowing the Fuzz are going to be after them, all the truckers decide to go to Mexico to avoid prosecution.  Duck leads the charge.  Other truckers join out of solidarity, creating a convoy that stretches across desert highways and clogs up tiny towns.  It’s an entire movement. But will the unwieldy rebellion be able to outrun Wallace, the feds, and the National Guard?

Is It Good:  Not really, but it’s kind of fun.  It’s generally regarded as one of Peckinpah’s worst, and he was so sick that he barely directed any of it.  James Coburn reportedly did much of the shooting.  Peckinpah was unhappy with the screenplay and instead of rewriting it, he just encouraged improv, and added some token African Americans.    So it’s a jumble of a film, where characters just kind of come and go, and a vague political statement is made.

But as I said, it’s fun. The sparring between Duck and Melissa is sexy (at one point he basically calls her an old hag, but she still sleeps with him), and the shaggy plot provides a lot of laughs.  The idea that this trucker convoy inspires the common people (and are powerful enough that a sleazy politician tries to rope them into his corner for votes) is so ludicrous that it’s awesome.   In fact, its goofy premise might be more applicable today than it was in 1978. Can’t you just imagine people glued to CNN, watching this massive trucker convoy, and worshipping the mysterious Duck? There would be t-shirts and Twitter hashtags within the hour. It would be Antione Dodson or JetBlue Guy all over again.

Convoy may also be the only trucker movie in existence which possesses a Christ allegory at its heart.  Seriously.  If you’ve never seen it, I don’t want to spoil the end, but we’re talking full-on hero’s journey and dying god archetypes here.  All that from a movie based on a novelty trucker song and put into production purely to capitalize on the CB radio / trucker film fad.   Man, that Peckinpah. He could do redemption stories even when he wasn’t really trying.

Is It Worth A Look: I think so, but know that I have a weird fascination with 1970s road movies where the characters linger in greasy diners and headlights scan desolate stretches of sagebrush. It reminds me of my hellish family vacations which saw us piled in a motor home with 3 (count ’em, three!) dogs driving from coast to coast, and stopping in all kinds of rank places along the way.   I hated it, yet I’m drawn to images of that remind me of it, which is why I watched Convoy

It’s not essential Peckinpah, but it’s weirdly fascinating to see him spiraling out of control.  (This might make a good double feature with The Killer Elite, which is equally messy. I almost wrote that one up, but I only remember the ninjas.)    It’s a low key movie, perfect to drink to, and have on in the background on a Friday or Saturday night.  One could even make a drinking game out of the plot holes.  Is Violet Wallace’s wife? Why is Melissa selling her clothes if she’s a successful journalist?  Where the hell does Wallace get the Cottonmouth name?  Was he a trucker once, or does he just like to get on the old CB and pick up strangers? Who knows? Convoy doesn’t, and yet I’m not going to hold it against it.

Plus, you know, there’s the Christ allegory. I mentioned that, right?  And trucks flipping over, and communal outdoor showers, and janitors with hearts of gold, and memories of a time when CB radios and truckers were popular. Breaker, breaker, what a funny and whimsical time.  I mean, how crazy is it that people reached across the airwaves to total strangers? They chatted under witty aliases,  updated them about their lives and arranged meet-ups ….


Random Anecdotes: The reason James Coburn was involved with this at all was that he wanted a DGA card.  He wasn’t really supposed to do anything, but wound up directing a lot of the film. Considering he never directed anything but an episode of The Rockford Files, you have to wonder what that was all about.  Did working on Convoy traumatize him that much, or was it an idle fancy?

The sharp-eyed and smart will notice that Quentin Tarantino borrowed a bit from this film. Particularly a certain hood ornament.

Cinematic Soulmates: Smokey and the Bandit, White Line Fever, Vanishing Point