Friday, April 26, 2013


CONVOY                   C+                  
USA  Great Britain  (110 mi)  1978  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Peckinpah 

After a couple of box office failures, Peckinpah was in no position to haggle with the Hollywood executives, taking a barebones script about runaway truckers armed with CB radios, inspired by the 1975 popular hit song by C.W. McCall, Convoy 1978 movie Theme Song YouTube (4:02).  So in effect, Hollywood was attempting to use Peckinpah to cash in on a recent American CB radio craze which was a precursor to the Internet, as anyone within range could listen in on conversations or get the word out in a hurry warning other truckers of speed traps, police sightings, blocked road construction, or cheap places to eat or buy gas.  After the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo where OPEC producing nations effectively boycotted the United States, the price of oil rose substantially from $3 dollars to $12 dollars per barrel, effectively doubling the real price of crude oil at the refinery level, causing massive shortages in the United States while also generating high inflation rates that persisted until the early 1980’s, with oil prices continuing to rise until the mid 80’s.  In response to this, the U.S. government imposed a nationwide 55 mph speed limit to help reduce fuel shortages, which especially had an impact on independent truckers who were often paid by the mile, so their productivity and potential earnings took a hit, where CB radios were crucial in helping alleviate some of the other unforeseen obstacles, like the presence of corrupt police who typically shake down truckers, threatening to impound their trucks unless a fine is paid.  This opened the door for fast car action comedy hits like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, the 4th top grossing film of 1977, and The Dukes of Hazzard on TV in 1979, and this film, 12th highest grossing film of the year, making $45 million dollars, contributing to the CB radio craze that took on a life of its own, since it requires no registration fee, where all you need is the equipment to be hooked up.  While there was a small licensing fee, during the height of its popularity in the late 70’s this was routinely ignored, as people used anonymous nicknames called “handles.”  Due to lax enforcement, there was widespread disregard for regulations, allowing people to chat mindlessly with one another, often engaged in tedious exchanges, which also included highly aggressive racist and sexist views, like chat room conversations, often resulting in highly descriptive masturbation fantasies. 

Sure enough, in the opening few minutes of the film, Kris Kristofferson as 18-wheel truck driver “Rubber Duck” is involved in a cat and mouse game of leap frog with a convertible sports car driven by Ali MacGraw, a photojournalist, each passing one another until a policeman stops him for speeding.  Very cleverly, he gives the cop a story about how that female driver up ahead was driving without any panties, which certainly diverts the cop’s attention, as he heads off to arrest the woman.  A word about each of the stars, as both had worked with Peckinpah before, but this time Kristofferson had gotten himself clean and was totally sober, making it harder for the director to work with him, as without the booze and drugs there was little rapport between them, and as for MacGraw, heavily tanned and wearing what appears to be a short afro, one of her worst looks ever, this film really points out her acting deficiencies, where an exasperated Peckinpah wasted valuable time just running the camera, hoping later to find something of value.  The shoot was chaotic anyway, mostly in New Mexico, where half the time the CB radios didn’t even work, with MacGraw’s jealous husband Steve McQueen often intruding, thinking MacGraw was having an affair with someone on the set and making wild death threats, as his marriage was on the rocks, with many days where the raving and near psychotic director was so coked up that he never came out of his trailer, where the assistant director James Coburn actually shot some of the main shooting, with the film going overbudget, largely due to the difficulty lining up such massive vehicles for a second or third shot, which required substantial time and effort, where the script called for using a hundred 18-wheel trucks for a good portion of the film, doubling the initial $6 million dollars and the film went over schedule.  They actually shut down the entire production to allow Kristofferson and his band, seen in the film as the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus,” as described in the song, to complete a previously scheduled 30-day tour before resuming filming, where many of the crew simply never returned.  Even worse, the director was so disgusted with the film, shooting nearly three times the footage as The Wild Bunch (1969), where he was known to utter “I haven't done one good day’s work on this whole picture,” that he eventually abandoned the project completely, never able to get the film under three and a half hours, putting the final cut in the hands of the studios to finally complete.  Irrespective of all these problems, it was the highest grossing film in Peckinpah’s career.         

Despite the troubles on the set and the overwhelmingly negative reviews, Peckinpah immersed himself in a love affair with trucks, where more than any movie stars, they were the real stars of this show, where the film excels at glorified stunt driving sequences, including a handful of highly choreographed crashes, where often the thrill is to put the audience into the driver’s seat.  So as a purely adrenaline laced, entertainment venture featuring plenty of trucks and even muscle cars flying through the air, crashing through billboards, the film is a success.  Where it fails is in the human element, as Peckinpah’s idea was to explore the mystique of truck drivers as modern-day cowboys, as if they were the last bastion of freedom on the highways in the American West before the government all but put them out of business.  While the film attempts to build into something of a protest movement, it can never figure out what it’s trying to protest, linking independence and true freedom as outside any collaboration with politicians or a trucker’s union. While it does present the idea that a man alone is not as strong as someone with the force of 100 trucks behind him, this idea degenerates into the mass chaos of an extended wrecking sequence, where trucks simply destroy much of the local property, where instead of a hail of bullets and explosions from a prolonged gunfight, trucks annihilate everything in their path.  It certainly continues Peckinpah’s nihilist themes, but without the poetry behind it.  Only Ernest Borgnine stands out as the indefatigable, trucker-hating sheriff, as his contempt for these lawbreaking “modern cowboys” couldn’t be more devious, pulling out all stops to find a way to stop them in their tracks, where he’s really playing the constantly thwarted coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, literally rising from the dead on multiple occasions only to pull out more dirty tricks to try and trap them again, always with that gleeful look of anticipation on his face, where the audience, unfortunately for him, continually roots against him.  This kind of cartoon generates a few laughs, offers up some good ol’ boy trucker lore, sounding off on just about everything from Viet Nam to the proposed “double nickel” nationwide speed limit, where giant trucks barreling down the road are seen as an expression of rebellion and defiance of “The Law,” as represented by Borgnine, a guy who routinely shakes down truckers.  It’s a modern American parable of unnecessary government intrusion, where Uncle Sam is seen as dipping into the trucker’s pocketbooks and affecting their livelihood, or so goes the myth, as it was always more about inflation and the unstoppable price of oil from OPEC than anything having to do with the truckers.       

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