Movie Review: Convoy (1978)
“Kristofferson and MacGraw…ain’t nothin’ gonna get in their way!”
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, Ernest Borgnine
Synopsis: An army of truckers come to the support of a friend unfairly victimised by a ruthless cop.
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It’s ironic – and not a little disturbing – that Convoy, by far the worst of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, was also the one to enjoy the most success at the box office, yielding $45 million against a budget of $12 million. Following a string of commercial failures, Peckinpah was in desperate need of a hit, but, as usual with the volatile director, the shoot was a mess, taking three months longer than scheduled to shoot and coming in $3 million over-budget. His friend, the actor James Coburn, had to step in to shoot scenes while Peckinpah locked himself in his trailer and made tortured phone calls to his nephew in which he insisted Steve McQueen and the Executive Car Leasing Co were conspiring to kill him. Convoy might have been a box office hit that recouped four times its budget, but Peckinpah would be unable to find work in Hollywood for another five years.
Convoy certainly isn’t a typical Peckinpah movie – and it’s inspired by a novelty song, which is never a good thing. Convoy, sung by C. W. McCall, was in turn inspired by the craze for citizens band radio, and its lyrics contained little, if any, semblance of a plot. The trouble with crazes is that, by definition, they tend to be short-lived, so movies made to cash in on them are often made in a hurry, which means quality is usually a casualty, which is certainly the case with Convoy.
Martin Penwald is something of a legend amongst his fellow truckers, who know him by his CB handle of Rubber Duck. He’s played by Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), who wears a shy smile much of the time, as if he knows what a stinker the picture is but is too polite to mention it. The Duck crosses paths with Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine – The Poseidon Adventure, Deadly Blessing), the obligatory fat and sweaty cop who never seems to stray more than ten feet from the desert highway. You sense there’s a history between these two which was left on the cutting room floor (Peckinpah handed in a three-hour print before he was shown the door), which makes Wallace’s intense dislike for Rubber Duck feel over the top. The Duck seems a little resigned to Wallace’s attitude, as if a part of him secretly feels he deserves the treatment meted out to him and his good buddies (apparently, Violet (Cassie Yates – The Osterman Weekend), the accommodating waitress with whom Rubber Duck is dallying when the leggy Melissa (Ali MacGraw – The Getaway) appears on the scene is supposed to be Wallace’s wife, although the movie tries damn hard to hide the fact).
The bad feeling between Rubber Duck and Wallace spills over into violence, although it’s strictly of the non-threatening variety: a mass brawl in a diner during which the plucking of banjo strings reaches fever pitch on the soundtrack. Wallace ends up handcuffed to a bar stool while Rubber Duck, joined by his two good buddies, Pigpen (Burt Young – The Killer Elite, Rocky) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye), head for the highway in their 18-wheelers. They drive for New Mexico, and are joined in their flight by fellow truckers sympathetic to their plight until they’ve formed a convoy that stretches for more than a mile.
Convoy is a terrible movie from which a fully functioning Peckinpah might have been able to salvage something of worth. There are a few moments – briefly glimpsed shots of behemoth juggernauts nosing over the horizon – that hint at the epic scale for which he might have been striving, and which evoke faint echoes of the Westerns in which he made his name, but they’re as substantial as smoke from an exhaust. Ali MacGraw provides unlikely window dressing; she looks like a foal that has strayed into a field full of bulls, and generates zero chemistry with her leading man, but at least Ernie Borgnine tries to breathe some life into his scenes, even though he is just playing a meaner, darker version of Jackie Gleason’s equally obsessed trooper in the previous year’s Smokey and the Bandit. It’s not enough, though, and Convoy labours towards its conclusion on a wave of apathy and confusion over just what kind of movie it’s meant to be.
(Reviewed 20th November 2016)