Even Sam Peckinpah didn’t like it.
623His penultimate movie, 1978’s Convoy, actually ended up being his biggest financial success. Despite this, the cast, crew – and Peckinpah himself – along with critics and audiences alike, failed to see anything particularly noteworthy about the lightweight trucker movie before, during or after the troubled production. It doesn’t feel like a Peckinpah movie, it doesn’t look like a Peckinpah movie and, whatever strand of sense he wanted to make of the pathetic script simply does not come across in the finished product. Running over-schedule and over-budget, with cocaine, alcohol and subsequent health problems stifling his art, and with long-time collaborator James Coburn drafted in to shoot half of the footage himself, the film ended up losing to the massively successful, similarly-themed 1977 flick, Smokey and the Bandit, which hit cinemas before Convoy was even completed (although not before it was due to be completed). Hell, Peckinpah was even fired midway through the editing process, and the film was recut and rescored without his approval. Watching Convoy, it feels like a lifelong Peckinpah admirer shot a fairly meaningless commercial trucker flick as a tribute to his idol, and that Peckinpah wasn’t even involved at all – and that’s almost literally what actually happened.
The story follows ‘Rubber Duck’, a much-loved trucker who gets into a dispute with an old enemy, corrupt Sheriff Lyle Wallace, and basically makes a run for the state line with his trucker friends. Along the way his followers grow until he’s leading a hundred-strong convoy, which the authorities find impossible to even slow down, let alone stop. Taking an interest in the perceived cause of the truckers, the Governor of New Mexico wants to offer Rubber Duck and his followers a mutually-beneficial solution to the whole mess, but Sheriff Lyle has other plans.
Peckinpah was renowned for troubled productions. Indeed, my personal favourite of his films – one of my favourite films of all time – Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (reviewed here), was reportedly the only picture in his entire oeuvre that he had full control over. Everything else – from The Wild Bunch to The Getaway, from Straw Dogs to Cross of Iron – got out of hand, at some point or another, and suffered from reshoots, Studio or star interference, with the end result never quite matching the legendary filmmaker’s intended vision.
The worst example of this was undoubtedly his last film, The Osterman Weekend, as his health was at an all-time low during that period – on the eve of his death – but, funnily enough, the final cut (and long-released Director’s Cut) of that film has considerably more to offer than the neutered producer-cut version of Convoy. Certainly the majority of the blame, at least at the outset, has to lie with the script. Based on nothing but a meaningless jingle (which was later rewritten and expanded to form the closing track of the film), there was simply nothing here for anybody to work with. Peckinpah may have worked with nothing before – Alfredo Garcia spawned entirely from the premise of the hunt for a man already dead – but he never worked with a script this bad.
Attempting to get input and improvisations out of his cast of crew, and rewriting the script as he went along, didn’t do much to improve things, and indeed probably threatened to only complicate matters further: Peckinpah himself admitted that he didn’t realise until midway through filming that Kristofferson’s intentions for his character of Rubber Duck were to make him into an almost Jesus-like figure. Quite honestly, he shouldn’t have accepted the production in the first place. There was nothing worthy to make out of the flimsy story, however great a filmmaker you are. The rebels-on-the-run may have appealed to him, as did the Western themes no doubt (he was obsessed with old cowboys dying out as the new age steamrollered over them – perhaps because he could inherently relate to them), but the Jesus-and-his-followers themes were almost coincidental, it would appear, and certainly none of these elements were satisfactorily deployed in the final cut.
It’s difficult to know whether Sam’s original cut would have been more enjoyable but by all accounts – from the few who’ve actually seen it – it is much better than the ‘producer’s cut’, and far more Peckinpah-like, with better acting sequences as well as more classically ‘Peckinpah’ shots. Certainly it couldn’t be any less Peckinpah, with even the director’s trademark slow-mo cross-cutting kept to an absolute bare minimum (and almost non-existent during the second half of the movie) in this version. Unfortunately, it appears to have been lost forever, and all we will ever know from Convoy is this loud and lightweight, increasingly mundane and oftentimes moronic producer’s cut, which Sam himself refused to ever watch because ‘he might have done violence to those involved’.
You can see why.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘uncut’ labelling either – all this refers to are a few lines of dialogue from the truckers when interviewed during the convoy, where they talk about their issues with the US, expressing anti-Vietnam sentiments and criticisms towards oil companies which were clearly felt too ‘controversial’ at the time. The political subtext is abortive in the extreme, never really leading anywhere at all, and taking the film’s potential impact right along with it.
This film was inexplicably popular back when I was at school. Strange, since it came out the year I was born, and pretty random considering that it is an action and violence-less affair which is utterly tame by anybody’s standards. Yet I have distinct memories of schoolfriends raving about it, and getting together to watch it. Alongside Scum and A Clockwork Orange, and then Robocop and Die Hard, Convoy sat uncomfortably as some kind of rebel-against-the-cause film for rebellious-minded kids to admire. Who knows, though, perhaps the appeal came instead from some sub-conscious desire to see the Transformers-like vehicles which had – until that point – only been the subject of Sunday morning cartoons – come to life and crash through checkpoints, road-blocks, and even a small town. I never got it, and I still don’t. It’s somewhat worrying when a trucker movie can be so bad that you feel like citing Smokey and the Bandit as an example of how to do it right. Worse still when that trucker flick was directed by the ‘great’ Sam Peckinpah.
The acting was almost completely muted, as a result of a number of bad influences, most damagingly the original script; the failed attempts at changing said script; the lack of director for the cast; the general apathy on the set; the fact that the majority of the dialogue-driven scenes had to be rush-shot at the tail-end of the production when most of those involved had all-but forgotten their lines; and, of course, the fatal editing of the finished product as implemented by the Studios who, by that point, had simply had enough of Sam retreating to his trailer for hours to over-indulge in cocaine, the drug that he had been grappling with ever since (allegedly) James Caan got him hooked during the filming of The Killer Elite. Alcohol appeared to almost enhance Peckinpah’s vision; cocaine, unfortunately, killed it.
Still, knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to watch the cast – all of whom we’ve seen in far better films, with far better material, doing considerably better jobs – muddle through their scenes with mumbled, unsure dialogue, trying to forge characters that nobody, least of all them themselves, quite understood.
Kris Kristofferson had worked with Peckinpah three times now, and his innate charisma and largely unspoken charm appears to allow his performance as the Jesus-like trucker-leader Rubber Duck to survive mostly undiminished, but there’s no denying that you can see the tiredness settling in within his portrayal; his delivery waning, and the end result simply not having the same conviction as some of his other roles. His partner-in-crime, Ali Macgraw, was well-received in a trio of flicks, but is simply abysmal here. I’m sure her fading marriage to Steve McQueen (with whom she’d produced one of her best features, for Peckinpah – The Getaway – a few years earlier, and who turned up on set and allegedly threatened to ‘harm’ Sam if he was not respectful to her) didn’t help, but a little research points towards the fact that the production problems may have been entirely responsible for her stilted dialogue and the almost-complete lack of chemistry between McGraw and Kristofferson. By that point in the production, running weeks over schedule and millions over budget, McGraw could barely remember the lines to the scenes that she had shot months before, and yet was expected to somehow shoot all of the close-up dialogue for them in less than a week.
Surviving the affair far better are regular Peckinpah collaborator Ernest Borgnine and Rocky regular Burt Young, both of whom appear to just be more comfortable in their supporting roles; Borgnine chewing the scenery with aplomb as the dastardly sheriff with an undying grudge against the Rubber Duck, and Burt Young perfectly chosen as the ‘Duck’s utterly-loyal second-in-command.
With changes made to the score, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not Sam’s original music would have also made a difference to the piece. Certainly the score we’re left with tonally cripples the feature, and leaves you feeling like it’s more of a comedic farce than any kind of revolutionary drama. But perhaps, by this stage, the damage was already done.
Trying to end on a positive note, there are glimmers of entertainment to be found in the film. The opening shots are undeniably stunning. They may not be unequivocally Peckinpah in style (who knows, perhaps Coburn even directed them) but they manage to capture the white desert sands in a truly panoramic, irrepressibly beautiful fashion. When Rubber Duck’s distinctive black Mack truck rolls through the white sands, reflected in a lake that runs parallel to the road, there’s no denying the artistic merit of the framing and cinematography. Smatterings of similar such magnificence punctuate the monotony, unfortunately decreasing in frequency as the picture plays out, but still proving striking in every single instance.
Similarly there are a couple of trademark Peckinpah action shots. The diner brawl is awful, an utter waste of his talents (and, by all accounts, given that it took him over a week over schedule just to finish this abysmal sequence, a waste of time) but the truck-based action is also sporadically effective. Ironically, the majority of the film’s most noteworthy action shots – if not all of them – were accidents. Can you believe that? The bit where the truck rolls over taking a turn was an accident incorporated into the script largely because the truck was damaged beyond repair (although perhaps it looked pretty spectacular as captured from a helicopter, so why not keep it in?), and the bit where the police car takes a magnificent stunt-jump through a sign and crashes through a barn roof and to the ground below? Well the car was supposed to end up in the barn, not sail right through it. Hell, even Rubber Duck’s very truck was so damaged by the carnage in the final assault (which was far from apparent in terms of actual on-screen action) that it had to be pushed through the final legs of its journey.
Yet beyond these moments, some scenes of the trucks tearing through the dusty desert (again, in reality the production massively overran because of the fact that they kept getting stuck in the sand; their engines choked by it) and a brief, marginally effective tear-through-a-town set-piece, the film has very little of any action or even artistic merit, let alone Peckinpah-style magnificence. I am yet to be convinced that there could have ever been anything worthy made of this material, even if Sam had been at the very height of his career. At the bottom of it, with one foot already almost in the grave, filled with cocaine and drowned by the ensuing paranoia, he had no chance of making anything out of the simple trucker’s ditty premise. Even taken as an odd curio in the up-and-down career of the celebrated-but-troubled director,Convoy has little to offer. Without his name attached to it, it probably would have been forgotten long ago, and I’m sure pretty-much everybody involved wished that it had been.
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