The Bottom Shelf

Crack open any bio of Sam Peckinpah and flip to the Convoy section and inevitably you will be confronted with tales of decline and dissolution to make your hair stand on end. Coked to the gills, increasingly frail and paranoid, prone to temper tantrums and incoherent rants, the once-great director would have been hard-pressed to make something worthwhile out of even the most promising material.

Convoy was, to put it mildly, not the most promising material. The inspiration (if you will) was a chart-topping hit from January 1976, recorded by an advertising executive named Bill Fries under the pseudonym C.W. McCall. Set to a driving, martial beat and steeped in CB lingo, the song told the story of Rubber Duck, a defiant trucker who leads a mighty fleet of trucks from Los Angeles to the Jersey shore, ignoring speed limits, tolls and law enforcement along the way. To the uninitiated, its lyrics are nearly indecipherable gibberish:

Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June
In a Kenworth pullin’ logs
Cab-over Pete with a reefer on
And a Jimmy haulin’ hogs
We is headin’ for bear on I-one-oh
’Bout a mile outta Shaky Town
I says, “Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck.
“And I’m about to put the hammer down.”

It was as if Stanley Kubrick had decided to follow Barry Lyndon with a lavish adaptation of “Disco Duck.”
With America in the inexplicable grip of CB fever, however, there were very few uninitiated in the mid-’70s. Producer Robert Sherman snapped up the movie rights and signed Peckinpah to direct a big screen version of the novelty hit. For many of the director’s fans, friends and family, this was not an occasion for rejoicing. It was as if Stanley Kubrick had decided to follow Barry Lyndon with a lavish adaptation of “Disco Duck.”

Peckinpah’s notion was to explore the mystique of truck drivers as modern-day cowboys, which seems like a decent idea until you realize that pretty much every trucker movie, from the Jerry Reed/Peter Fonda opus High-Ballin’ to the made-for-TV Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie, relies on the same conceit. Nevertheless, if there was ever a director equipped to squeeze some juice out of this cliché, it would surely be the man who made The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country.

As we’ve established, however, Convoy was not the work of Peckinpah in his prime. The film’s troubled production has been well-documented: a script under constant revision, a shooting schedule shot to hell and a director given to holing up in his trailer all day and raving psychotically about death threats from Steve McQueen and the Executive Car Leasing Company. The shoot was so chaotic, the movie’s big trailer moment is actually a stunt gone awry (a car meant to crash through the roof of a barn instead shreds the top of it and continues sailing through the air).

Mounting delays (production shut down for a month while star Kris Kristofferson went on tour) and an equally troubled post-production period meant that Convoy was beaten to theaters by a breezy, unpretentious redneck romp that went on to become the second highest grossing film of 1977 (behind Star Wars): Smokey and the Bandit. Peckinpah eventually abandoned the project completely, leaving the editing in the hands of the studio.

It all sounds pretty grim, but here’s the part where I segue into my groundbreaking reappraisal of Convoy — a daring corrective which persuasively argues that, despite its unpromising origins and myriad birthing difficulties, the finished product is in fact an unappreciated masterpiece, a brilliant fusion of Peckinpah’s classic Western themes and contemporary working class concerns, and the final crowning achievement of a cinematic giant.

Even in his dissipated state, it seems Peckinpah couldn’t settle for making a yee-haw smash-em-up.
Nah, just kidding. In fact, Convoy is generally deserving of its reputation as the runt of the Peckinpah litter. It’s not that the film isn’t ambitious; on the contrary, it demands far too much of its flimsy source material. Even in his dissipated state, it seems Peckinpah couldn’t settle for making a yee-haw smash-em-up. He makes several ill-fated attempts at injecting some social commentary into the legend of the Rubber Duck, and when that doesn’t work, he shifts gears into a full-blown Christ allegory.

On one level, the movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the song, right down to the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.” Its hero, truck driver Martin Penwald (Kristofferson), goes by the CB handle Rubber Duck. Along with fellow long-haulers Pig Pen (an aptly cast Burt Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), the Duck is lured into a speed trap by a corrupt redneck sheriff known as Dirty Lyle (it could only be Ernest Borgnine). After Lyle shakes the trio down for cash bribes, they convene at a truck stop where the Duck becomes reacquainted with Melissa (Ali MacGraw), a photographer who had earlier aroused his interest by revealing her penchant for DWP (Driving Without Panties).

Dirty Lyle drops by to fuck with the boys a little more and a brawl breaks out. Rubber Duck and friends escape (with Melissa hitching a ride with the Duck), forming a convoy in hopes that safety in numbers will ensure they make it across the state line. As the cavalcade of 18-wheelers rolls along, more and more trucks join up in order to be part of the Duck’s movement. The joke is, there really is no “movement” except in the most literal sense of the term. When the press representative for the governor of New Mexico pulls up alongside the Duck’s truck and inquires as to the purpose of the convoy, our hero gives the sort of terse, laconic cowboy response that seems freighted with meaning while meaning nothing at all: “The purpose of the convoy is to keep moving.”

And what is the purpose of Convoy? Peckinpah can’t seem to decide. The early scenes are almost self-parodic — particularly the truck stop brawl, where shattering ketchup bottles provide the director’s trademark gushes of red fluid. Poorly edited and scored to spirited fiddle music, there’s nothing to distinguish this scene from the work of Hal Needham aside from the frequently employed slow-motion, which in this context feels like a desperate bid for attention. (“It’s still me behind the camera! Bloody Sam!”)

Once the convoy is underway, we’re trapped for long stretches with Kristofferson and MacGraw in the cab of the Duckmobile, which is a lot like being stuck in an elevator with your two dullest co-workers. Kristofferson is at least amiably gruff, in his own distant way, but MacGraw seems to have beamed in from the planet Stepford — she doesn’t give a single line reading that resembles conversational human speech as we know it. I don’t want to get too carried away making the case for Smokey and the Bandit, but one need only compare the Kristofferson/MacGraw scenes with the equivalent Burt Reynolds/Sally Field interludes in the Bandit’s black Trans Am. While not exactly a good ol’ boy Annie Hall, Smokey boasts some crisp banter between its romantic leads and the occasional snappy one-liner (such as Reynolds noting he has a great profile “especially from the side”). The chemistry between the two is undeniable and there’s a spontaneity to their exchanges that goes a long way toward lending this car-chase picture a winning, offhand charm. Kristofferson and MacGraw, on the other hand, look like they’d be hard-pressed to strike a spark if they doused each other in lighter fluid and skipped hand-in-hand through a Zippo factory.

Peckinpah clearly has no more interest in these characters than we do, so he turns his attention to making some sort of social statement. Spider Mike, the black trucker, is subject to Dirty Lyle’s taunts of “boy”; when he leaves the convoy to tend to his pregnant wife, he is apprehended in Texas and beaten by the authorities. Perhaps realizing that his exposé of law enforcement officials of the American Southwest as brutal racists is not the freshest or most fruitful angle to pursue, Peckinpah shifts his attention back to the truckers, who have gathered at a makeshift campsite to negotiate with Governor Jerry Haskins (Seymour Cassel).

For a moment it seems that Peckinpah is onto something, maybe a sort of Preston Sturges farce about the absurdity of a disorganized protest with warring political agendas.
The governor is an opportunistic buffoon hoping to align himself with what he believes to be a massive grassroots effort. Deprived of its ostensible purpose, however (the convoy has after all stopped moving), the coalition splinters. It turns out that many of the truckers do have causes — increased federal regulation, the spiraling price of gasoline, the 55 mph speed limit — and all of them are under the misapprehension that the convoy is meant as a show of solidarity for their particular grievances. For a moment it seems that Peckinpah is onto something, maybe a sort of Preston Sturges farce about the absurdity of a disorganized protest with warring political agendas.

Once again, however, the director veers off-course and plunges down another dead-end. Having been notified of Spider Mike’s plight, the Rubber Duck hightails it to Texas and uses his truck as a battering ram to free his imprisoned comrade from “trucker’s hell.” Leading the ragtag remains of his convoy, Rubber Duck makes his way to the bridge into Mexico. Dirty Lyle and the National Guard are waiting for him with a tank, everything goes kablooie and the Duck goes into the drink.

It is more or less at this point that we realize we’re watching the story of Jesus re-imagined as a metal-twisting, glass-shattering, pedal-to-the-metal action spectacular. The long-haired, bearded Rubber Duck is our double-clutching messiah, leading his followers (including those apostles in the microbus) to salvation. (“They’re all following you,” MacGraw monotones. “No they ain’t,” Kristofferson gravels. “I’m just in front.”) He becomes a martyr, as he must, but on the third day he rises again. The film ends with the resurrected Duck spirited away by his flock to the sunnier shores beyond.

I’m not suggesting that Peckinpah took any of this allegorical hoo-hah seriously. More likely, he simply threw in the towel when it came to devising any kind of satisfying conclusion to what is, after all, a shapeless mess that never settles on a consistent tone or coherent storyline. In the end, Convoy offers only a handful of striking images — the opening shots of a string of trucks making their way through dunes of white sand along a narrow ribbon of highway, then later, those same trucks skidding out of control in the desert and kicking up huge, gorgeous billows of dust. Any metaphorical link between those images and their creator is, of course, strictly coincidental.