Arizona, noon, on the seventh of June when they highballed over the pass,
Bulldog Mac with a can on back, and a Jaguar hauling ass.
He’s ten on the floor strokin’ bore, seat cover startin’ to gain,
Now beaver you a truckin with the Rubber Duck and I’m about to pull the plug on your drain.
From the moment Kris Kristofferson says “there ain’t many of us left” we know this is going to be a movie about changing times and a end of a era, but what should we expect, it is a Sam Peckinpah movie. John Ford was a pioneer, a pioneer in spirit and at heart and a pioneer of movies. This ideal is reflected in his movies, whatever the story, the subtext of his great westerns involved the settlement and taming of the west. Sam Peckinpah came along at a different time an era of despair and an era and a loss of innocence. While Ford’s work is a metaphor for the birth of a new nation, Peckinpah represents an established nation facing a crisis of fair and a loss of direction. It is therefore fitting that he should make a film like Convoy, a contemporary film that explore all the ideas of his westerns, in a lot of ways it is a western. It is also fitting that it should be his last significant film, and incidentally his most profitable.
Three truckers: Martin Penwald aka Rubber Duck known as “The Duck” (Kris Kristofferson), Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), Bobby aka Love Machine’ aka Pig Pen (Burt Young) Are lured into a speed trap by Sheriff Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) who gave them a false “Smokey report” using the CB handle ‘Cottonmouth’. Lyle considers himself independent (in other words corrupt) takes a bribe to let them off the speeding charge using the threat of locking them up awaiting trial and thus taking away their livelihood. After paying the fine the trio stop at a truck stop where Lyle tries to arrest Mike on a vagrancy charges (knowing that he has already extorted his remaining cash) . A fight breaks out between Lyle, two other cops and all the truckers in the place. Fleeing the scene along with Melissa (Ali MacGraw), a photographer looking for a lift after her car breaks down, the group head for the state line. By the time they cross the border into New Mexico the convoy has increased to fifty trucks. Before long a mile long Convoy is heading for Mexico, picking up support and attracting the attention of the police and the state governor.
There have reports suggesting EMI who own had purchased the rights to the song that inspired the movie intended to make a light, comic action chase movie like Smokey and the Bandit that had just grossed over $60million. Although elements of this remained Sam Peckinpah had other ideas and crafted something more substantial, political and most importantly similar in style and substance to his westerns. It is true that the movie looses its way from time to time but on the whole it is a solid movie that is misunderstood and unfairly criticised. Made at time before internet it is a film surrounded by myth. One constantly mentioned point is that it is based on a song. That isn’t entirely true. The original version of the song does not include the plot or the characters from the film. A new version was written based on the screenplay, this is the one used in the film and played on the radio. It is true that actor and friend of the director James Coburn worked as second-unit director, it has been suggested this was favour to help him get his directors union card, however he didn’t actually direct anything after Convoy. It also isn’t clear how much of the film he actually directed when Peckinpah was “unwell” (unwell being a euphemism for his much publicised problems of the time).
Set at a time of rising fuel prices and the introduction of the 55mph speed limit, shortly after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam war, the film and the truckers in it represent the last bastion of American individuality and freedom in a increasingly state controlled country (and world). This is made clear in certain key scenes but is only suggested not resolved. This give viewers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Most people will take different things from the themes depending on what they bring to it. WARNING PLOT SPOILER COMING UP: For many The Duck’s apparent death and his ultimate survival/resurrection could just be a cop out by a filmmaker wanting a happy ending or afraid to kill his hero character. I see it more as glimmer of hope in a troubled time for the characters and what they represent. A message of hope for a nation and for the world as a whole, how far have we come from the despair of Vanishing Point (1971)? The cowboy spirit of the truck drivers has not been lost or broken, despite the hardship that the Duck and other drivers face in changing times. Furthermore the Duck’ survives because of his moral code and by surviving he defeats Lyle’s amoral code. The cowboy/truck driver being the hero and the corrupt authority figure reflects its own problems in society, but as already mentioned it was only a handful of years after the Watergate Scandal.
Beyond any meaning or subtext that may or not be there, there are two things that make the film really work. The cast and the trucks. The cast is headed by Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck, he was at the height of his fame as an actor having made some great films: Cisco Pike and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (also with Sam Peckinpah) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (directed by Martin Scorseese) as well as the rubbish but popular A Star is Born. Ali MacGraw had not made a film since The Getaway (also directed by Pecckinpah) six years earlier (following her divorce from Robert Evans and marriage to Steve McQueen) but was still a bankable star. Burt Young was recognisable after the success of Rocky. The film stealing performance comes from Ernest Borgnine as Lyle Wallace, the corrupt sheriff and The Ducks nemesis. The other stars, the trucks led by the Duck’s 1977 Mack RS-712 LST (Bulldog Mack with a can on back) are a representation of the pioneer spirit “From the covered wagons and trains to the 18-wheelers that keep this country alive”. They cut there way through the landscape the way the cavalry did in John Ford westerns creating emotive imagery, and they look cool!
A few final thoughts on the movie: Re-watching the movie for my Video Vault series brings back a lot of memories. I first saw the film when I was about six years old and watched it constantly as a kid, possibly more that any other movie (until I came across The Terminator and Alien at the age of twelve, but that’s another story). Growing up in England it is this movie as much as Fandango (the movie that lends it name to my blog) that made encouraged me undertake a road trip around Americas south-west. I may not watch the movie as often as I did before, but I still love it. You can’t talk about Convoy without mentioning Sam Peckinpah’s other movies. It isn’t as hard hitting as Straw Dogs (1971) or as sublime as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) but just like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and The Getaway (1972) it shouldn’t be dismissed. Many people reading this may have seen the movie and forgotten it, others will not have seen it. I recommend regardless of your relationship or preconceptions you give it a chance and watch it.
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