[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
Convoy continues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoy rumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroesâ€”these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner) at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.
But after all, this is a ballad, right? C.W. McCall and all that. Ballad of Cable Hogue, for that matter. But the protagonist of this Peckinpah ballad doesn’t so much sing or live out an earthy hymn of life—as Cable Hogue, for all the free-form editorial games of his film, did—but rather, only seems to dream wistfully about life forces that are never convincingly evoked. Peckinpah’s vision is too bitter now for the rich, hedonistic consolations of that earlier masterpiece (even his own playing with the film medium isn’t as voluptuous as it’s been on other occasions). The nihilism makes itself felt, again, not so much through the many scenes of Mack trucks plowing through ranks of cop cars or making splinters out of corrupt towns; it finds expression in the uneasiness with which Peckinpah portrays, or avoids quite portraying, the populace at the core of populism. Here and there, Convoy tries on a Bonnie and Clyde / Sugarland Express approach, as miscellaneous citizens of Southwestern smalltowns interrupt their parading to cheer the truckers as they drive through. But some of those same people also sit by with picnic lunches, waiting to observe the outcome of a truly lethal ambush; others of them, simply by blundering into the roadway, serve to separate Rubber Duck from his pals at a critical time. At other times they are so much dumb fodder for opportunistic politicos and manipulative media types. And to be sure, they also unmistakably move in to feed off the myth-in-the-making, and off a hero who is a flesh-and-blood man who insists he’s not leadin’ anything, but is only out in front running for his life: Billy the Kid, rock star, all over again.
One can’t help asking–and if it’s a literalminded, plausibility-type question, that in itself is to the point–why the 18-wheeler cowboys who drive right through some houses while running down a vicious lawman assume that no innocent bystanders are at home just then, feeding the kid or going to the toilet or otherwise squatting inescapably in the path of a destruction as inhuman as that figured in The Law. And the answer is that those folks just don’t matter, because “the people” finally have to be left behind, too, as the select circle of comrades and truck-stop lovers—but apparently not families—linked by their emblematic, Code-sustained job of work that sets them apart, leave the U.S. of A. one more time in a Peckinpah movie and head for a Mexican idyll—following a coffin. It’s pretty easy to see how this relates to Peckinpah himself; how the professional camaraderie of the truckers translates into the mutually sustaining professionalism of the film company on location. Although many of them are nameless to me, I recognize most of the folks in Rubber Duck’s convoy; I recognize the familiar crossing-over of onscreen and offscreen jobs (Walter Kelley, variously writer, dialogue director, and second-unit director, plays an inept Federal man; Peckinpah star James Coburn has a discreet credit as second-unit director; Peckinpah himself shows up with his working camera crew and gets away with being visible in some reverse-angle shots). And I recognize the signatory gesture when Rubber Duck, preparing grimly to drive into certain death he might have driven around, pauses to put on a pair of silver sunshades.
John Huston, Peckinpah’s favorite American filmmaker, once observed that the striking of a movie company is very like the end of a world. Convoy ends with Rubber Duck’s opposite number, the old-time, now-corrupt sheriff, bursting into Hustonian/Peckinpavian laughter over a wry joke on himself. It absolutely ends with an aged pair of those normal-people bystanders turning to each other and unexpectedly sharing a smacking kiss. At the brink of the abyss, Peckinpah still makes loving gestures. It remains for the next film to make clear whether he can still believe in them, or is laughing to beat the devil.
After writing the preceding review, I learned that Convoy must be added to the list of interfered-with Peckinpah projects. The large supervising-editor credit for Graeme Clifford—included even in the ads for the film—represents the intervention of the backers, EMI, in signally altering Peckinpah’s design for the film. And the director’s off-the-record remarks about the making of the movie, while in no way giving the lie to my theoretical reading of the truckers’ communal professionalism as analogue of the professionalism of a film company on location, suggest that the circumstances in which this film was made were far from ideal. Meanwhile, Peckinpah has significantly cut himself off from the Hollywood film scene and relocated his personal/professional headquarters in Sausalito. —Edit
Â© 1978 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: B.W.L. Norton, after the song by C.W. McCall. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. (and, uncredited, Robert Hauser). Production design: Fernando Carrere. Editorial supervision: Graeme Clifford. Second-unit direction: Walter Kelley, James Coburn. Music: Chip Davis. Production: Robert M. Sherman.
The players: Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, Ali MacGraw, Burt Young, Franklyn Ajaye, Madge Sinclair, Chuck Davies, Seymour Cassell, Cassie Yates, Walter Kelley, Donald R. (Donnie) Fritts, Jorge Russek, John Bryson, Sam Peckinpah.