Sunday, December 27, 2009


"I hate somebody else paying my dues."

With 'Cross of Iron' roundly ignored at the box office and Peckinpah out of pocket to the tune of the $90,000 he put into the ailing production, it was imperative that he direct something commercial. That something was 'Convoy'. Its source material was a novelty song by one-hit-wonder C.W. McCall. Its target audience were the undiscerning cinema-goers who had made 'Smokey and the Bandit' such a hit and would go on to embrace 'The Cannonball Run' and its unholy trinity of car crashes, dumbass sheriffs and low-brow humour a few years later.

Peckinpah spent most of the shoot incapacitated. Various people pitched in to direct scenes, including James Coburn who had taken a position as second unit director in order to garner some behind-the-camera experience and Katy Haber, Peckinpah's partner at the time. When he did call the shots, he disregarded the script and had his cast ad-lib. As Weddle puts it in his biography, "simple, straightforward scenes ... turned into amorphous, convoluted and often incomprehensible improvisations". This technique, coupled with Peckinpah's frequent absences from the set, resulted in 'Convoy' wrapping almost a fortnight overschedule and a whopping $5 million overbudget - almost twice what it had been budgeted at. Peckinpah had shot nearly twice the amount of footage as on 'The Wild Bunch'. By the time he got to the editing room, he gave up. For the first time in his career, Peckinpah didn't find himself locked in a battle with producers over final cut and reductions to running time. He simply, without even completing a preview cut, turned the whole thing over to the studio and walked away.

None of this boded well for future projects, but all sins would doubtless have been forgiven after it took more than $46 million worldwide ... except for the stories that had filtered back to Tinseltown: stories of Peckinpah fucked up on booze and the Columbian marching powder, slumped in his director's chair or holed up in his trailer, the production at a standstill and the budget spiralling. It would be five years before he directed again.

Bunch of truckers. Poor little rich girl. Corrupt cop. Truck-stop fight. Convoy to the state line. Media coverage. Interstate police response. Political shenanigans. National Guard. River bridge. Truck vs tank. That's it, really.

There's a diminishing aspect to Peckinpah's approach to commercial/director-for-hire projects:

'The Getaway' - demonstrates solid, professional craftsmanship.

'The Killer Elite' - stages entire film as satirical comment on the emptiness of the material.

'Convoy' - thinks "fuck it" and gets wasted.

It's an easy film to knock, is 'Convoy'. There's no depth to it. The narrative is thinner than rice paper and strictly by-the-numbers. The characters are cardboard cut-outs. The truckers are two-fisted, hard-ass types who go by ridiculous 'handles' (CB identities) like Rubber Duck, Pig Pen and Black Widow, and spout borderline incoherent dialogue such as "what's your twenty" and "back 'em down, we got a bear in a plain brown wrapper". (The latter, according to my Gibberish-to-English Dictionary, translates as "slow down, there's a police officer in an unmarked car.") The action consists of big rigs ploughing through buildings and roadblocks and police cars getting trashed. The soundtrack is an endless variation on McCall's jangly, drawly hit single. What works quite well as a three-minute slice of vinyl rapidly becomes the aural equivalent of bastinado when expanded to fill huge tranches of narrative-free footage of trucks rolling through desolate landscapes.

There's some small pleasure in ticking off some of the Peckinpah Irregulars: Kris Kristofferson notches up his third appearance for Sam as Rubber Duck, the bearded, muscle-rippling truck driver who leads the convoy; Rubber Duck has a healthy disrespect for authority and a disinclination to wearing a shirt. This must be what appeals to poor little rich girl Melissa (Ali MacGraw, making it a second Peckinpah role after 'The Getaway') - she certainly wastes no time checking out his sleeper cab. Elsewhere, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Young also notch up their second go-around for Peckinpah. The performances, though, range from hammy (Borgnine) to comatose (Kristofferson) to just plain bad (MacGraw).

All things considered, it would be easy to call 'Convoy' Sam Peckinpah's worst film, end the review here and slouch off for a drink. But there's still something about the film that fixes it thematically in Peckinpah's ouevre. Maybe it's the whole truckers as modern day cowboys thing. Get behind that and you can go off on a spurious tangent that allows you to compare the corrupt synergy of law (Borgnine's bribe-taking cop 'Dirty' Lyle) and politics (Seymour Cassel's showboating governor) with the conspiracy behind the Kid's death in 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'; that allows you to connect Rubber Duck's suicidal attempt to ram a tank with his truck to Billy's decision to return to Fort Sumner in defiance of Chisum and Governor Wallace; that allows you to liken the truckers' rescue of Spider Mike from a racist attack by the cops to the vengeful beating the Reverend Dahlstrom administers after one of the volunteers is racially harrassed in 'Major Dundee'; that allows you to bracket Rubber Duck and his leadership of the convoy with Pike Bishop and the Bunch and Sergeant Steiner and his platoon.

But as soon as you've categorised 'Convoy' as essentially (though definitely not quintessentially) a Peckinpah movie, the thorny question arises: how much of 'Convoy' can Peckinpah actually be credited with?

'Convoy' is the least of Peckinpah's movies, the project he brought the least involvement and least enthusiasm to, and yet there is so much about it - even if these things are trace elements rather than leitmotifs - that makes it indubitably a Sam Peckinpah film. And you know what the crazy thing is? A 105-minute, C&W-scored, truck-porn movie aimed squarely at the hick shitkicker market shouldn't be as troublesome as this to get a handle on.

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