The world is often cruel to geniuses, and vice versa. Case in point: Sam Peckinpah. The Wild Bunch director made movies that were like his life: violent, angry, ragged, and filled with alcohol, sex, profanity, and a vitriolic rage aimed at corrupt authority. (Or authority in general, really.) Peckinpah established himself as arguably the greatest American action filmmaker before developing a reputation for drunkenness and erratic behavior that left him barely able to handle jobs that should have been beneath him, like directing the music video for Julian Lennon’s “Too Late For Goodbyes,” and making C.W. McCall’s novelty hit “Convoy” into a feature film.
Normally, a pop song would be awfully flimsy source material for a movie, but if anything, the song “Convoy” has too much plot for a two-hour movie. I can only follow about half the song’s plot, in part because it’s full of trucker jargon like “swindle sheets” and “cab-over Pete with a reefer on,” and in part because it’s so dense and plot-heavy. “Convoy” is quintessential K-Tel’s Superhits Of The 1970s fodder, a cornball story song rooted in the then-popular CB radio craze and the public’s enduring love for large vehicles and the manly men who drive them. It’s a country, comedy, novelty, and pop song all at the same time, as well the unlikely source material for what turned out to be Peckinpah’s top-grossing film, if arguably not his best.
It’s hard to believe that a film exists whose credits include both “Based on the song by C.W. McCall” and “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” But by the late 1970s, after a string of flops and a public record of Peckinpah-style behavior, the director was desperate enough to lower himself to directing an opportunistic action-comedy in the vein of the previous year’s Smokey And The Bandit. It became part of a wave of films that included 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose and 1981’s The Cannonball Run, gearhead epics about heroes with a potent cocktail of gasoline, testosterone, whiskey, and adrenaline coursing through their veins. The world remembers Clint Eastwood’s ape pictures and those movies where Burt Reynolds smirks while driving at unsafe speeds, but it has largely forgotten Convoy, even though it was the 12th top-grossing film of 1978.
Convoy stars Kris Kristofferson, the 1970s cinematic superstar least likely to bathe regularly, as “Rubber Duck,” an alpha-male long-distance trucker who breaks up the lonely hours of empty road by communicating via his CB radio with his fellow truckers. For you youngsters who did not live through the CB craze, CB radio was a lot like the Internet today: a bunch of people who can’t see each other adopting fake names and stupid personas to trade quips, insult each other, and indulge in running jokes. CB radio was to long-distance truckers what the Internet is to people who punch buttons and stare at computers all day: a way of forging a connection with like-minded folks and passing the time. Though to be fair, the unwashed, meth-fueled, truck-stop-whoring denizens of CB radio probably conducted themselves with more dignity and integrity than the folks who frequent comment sections. (Except The Dissolve’s, of course.)
Like the Internet, CB radio was used for good and for ill. When used for good, it helps strengthen the bonds between Rubber Duck and his truck-driving associates “Love Machine/Pigpen” (Burt Young), a fat, gross slob in the classic Burt Young mold, and Spider Mike (comedian Franklyn Ajaye), a black trucker with a pregnant wife about to deliver at home. But not everyone on a CB radio can be trusted. For it seems the nefarious “Dirty Lyle,” a corrupt, power-mad cop (or “Bear,” to use CB terminology) played by Peckinpah veteran Ernest Borgnine, has taken to masquerading as a trucker nicknamed “Cottonmouth” to lure these innocent truckers into a speed trap, so he can shake them down for a payoff.
Convoy gets off to such a singularly unpromising start that it isn’t just hard to believe it was directed by the man who made The Wild Bunch, it’s hard to believe it was made by professionals at all. The dubbing and writing are terrible. But there are moments of surprising power, like a throwaway sequence where a truck-stop waitress clearly in love with Rubber Duck presents herself to him sexually as his birthday present. She wears a sad little “Happy Birthday” banner across her chest, and a tender look of yearning for a man she can never really have. Her expression says everything about the power imbalance in their relationship, and her need for this man who will never be with her for more than a night or two when he’s passing through.
But that moment ends when Love Machine (whose nickname quickly switches to the much less flattering Pig Pen) and Spider Mike take to their CB radios to antagonize Dirty Lyle. When an enraged Lyle tries to arrest Spider Mike for vagrancy and Mike takes a swing at him, it leads to the kind of slow-motion all-out brawl between truckers and cops set to bluegrass banjos that only a revered master like Peckinpah could properly orchestrate.
The fight ends with Dirty Lyle handcuffed to a stool and hankering for revenge. From that point on, it’s all-out war between the bears and the truckers. Smokey has a lot of advantages: He can put a bear in the air (a police helicopter) to track Rubber Duck’s movements, he can set up a roadblock, and he can command the forces of the National Guard.
Rubber Duck, on the other hand, has the power of what Homer Simpson called “one of nature’s wonders: a convoy.” Here, the convoy starts with Rubber Duck up front and Pigpen and Spider Mike trailing behind, but as it picks up speed and word of Rubber Duck’s heroism and Dirty Lyle’s duplicity spreads, it quickly gathers new members, including a bus full of pot-smoking Jesus freaks whose leader tells Rubber Duck, “I see nothing in scripture that says, ‘Thou shalt not put the pedal to the metal!’”
Peckinpah was reportedly unhappy with the script, written by More American Graffiti director B.W.L. Norton, so he encouraged the cast, which also includes Ali MacGraw, to improvise. He was also reportedly so ill throughout the shooting that second-unit director James Coburn (yes, that James Coburn, the Oscar-winning actor) reportedly took over at times. The shoot ran long, the budget skyrocketed to twice its original size, and Peckinpah lost control of the final cut. Critics were unkind, too, but Convoy was a big-ass hit all the same.
Convoy has one huge advantage over the song that inspired it: It’s one thing to hear about a mighty convoy, but it’s quite another to see it. There’s a certain tacky, truck-stop grandeur to witnessing so many huge vehicles traveling together like a pack of steel, gasoline-fueled animals. By themselves, trucks aren’t that compelling visually. That’s why even Clint Eastwood, who theoretically should be able to hold the screen by himself, felt the need to put a sassy orangutan in his truck-driving movies just to make them releasable. Similarly, a man in a truck is just doing a job. But a whole bunch of trucks in a convoy: That is a movement. Convoy’s convoy becomes big news, and an unpopular governor played by Seymour Cassel decides to try to co-opt that popularity and gain popular support by embracing its cause.
But what is its cause, ultimately? In the original song, it’s strongly implied that the truckers are rebelling against the then-new 55-mph speed limit and freeway tolls, but Rubber Duck purposefully rejects that notion in the film, saying only, “The purpose of the convoy is to keep moving.” That sounds half like Zen wisdom, and half like bullshit. The stakes increase once it’s revealed that Rubber Duck is what is known in trucking circles as a “suicide jockey,” a trucker hauling explosives, and that Spider Mike has to leave the convoy to race home for his child’s birth. Dirty Lyle’s people catch Spider Mike and beat the crap out of him, then decide to use him as bait to lure Rubber Duck and his convoy into their clutches. At this point, the film stops feeling like a dumb, good-natured trucker action-comedy, and begins to feel like a Sam Peckinpah movie, albeit an unmistakably second-rate one.
Rebelling against something as silly as a speed limit would be unworthy of Peckinpah, so Convoy ultimately builds into yet another portrait of a tough, iconoclastic fighter out of step with the conformity and timidity of corrupt mainstream society, and pursuing his own moral code to the point of suicide.
By the time Suicide Jockey Rubber Duck is preparing to cross a bridge with what appears to be the entire National Guard on the other end waiting for him, and Dirty Lyle is manning a machine gun that blows Rubber Duck’s truck to smithereens, it sure looks like Rubber Duck is going to literally go down in a blaze of glory. The setpiece can’t help but recall the climactic shootout in The Wild Bunch, while highlighting the enormous gulf in quality between the work that made Peckinpah a legend and his work here. If Convoy were a product of Peckinpah’s classic period, it’s likely that Rubber Duck would have died when his truck blew up. But this is the compromised, hamstrung Peckinpah of 1978, so it turns out Rubber Duck merely faked his death to get Johnny Law off his tail, a crowd-pleasing ending that feels like a total cop-out.
Kristofferson is perfectly cast as a tough guy with the charisma to spark a movement. I cannot imagine another Rhodes Scholar who could play a filthy truck driver and/or deliver lines like, “I ain’t as good as stringing them words together as you are” with such sweaty conviction. It’s also always fun to watch Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young, and Seymour Cassel in movies like this—or any movies.
Though I would love to single out Convoy as an overlooked gem, there’s a good reason it has been largely forgotten, despite some memorable moments and sequences. The film has inspired me, however. At 38, I have just begun the steps toward getting my first driver’s license, in preparation for my first child’s impending birth. Previously, I was only learning how to drive so I could be a better father and husband, and also so I could do wicked donuts in school parking lots. Now, however, I have a loftier ambition: to lead my own righteous convoy, Rubber Duck-style. I have a ways to go before I can realize that dream (getting my driver’s license, and then trucking license, for starters), but when I make that happen I want all of you mothertruckers and CB-radio enthusiasts behind me as part of my convoy. What will be the purpose of our convoy, you ask? Why, to keep moving, of course.