Caulorlime watches out for smokies with a can on his back. Come on!
“I don’t know where to start with this” is a terrible cliché. It’s used by lazy writers to suggest bewilderment at the oddness of a concept that usually turns out, after a little unpacking, to be utterly mundane. It’s apt here, though, because trying to write about Convoy, the 1978 Sam Peckinpah movie about lorry drivers that was based on a novelty song, left me with, literally, too many choices about where to start.
I’m a smart-arse. That should really go without saying. Being a smart-arse is sort of my thing*. It didn’t serve me well here. Every time I started writing about this film I ended up ridiculing a different aspect of the weirdness, and that didn’t work. You can’t just pick this thing apart and mock its constituent pieces. You need to try and mock it as a whole. Convoy isn’t really a product of the paranoid seventies**, or a product of right-wing America***, or of an occasionally great director phoning it in****. It isn’t even a cautionary tale about attempting to construct a coherent narrative out of a three minute pop song sung/rapped in a baffling slang*****. I mean, it’s all of those things, but it’s also much, much less.
Let’s get the review part of this out of the way first. It’s shit. The story makes no sense; the script is incomprehensible; the performances are cartoonishly dire. It’s even badly shot. One thing you could expect Peckinpah to do well is choreograph a fight scene, but the fight in this is impossible to follow. The number of policeman fighting seems to vary hugely during the fight. There are three of them, then there seem to be enough for each of the three truckers to be fighting at least two, then there are three of them again. It’s extremely confusing and amateurish. And this isn’t incidental, it’s a pivotal scene. It’s the beating up of these policemen that is the engine of the plot. If the guys hadn’t roughed up the smokies they wouldn’t have to haul ass for the state line, and their heroic act of driving along a road wouldn’t inspire a nation, or something.
Sigh. I’m going to have to explain the plot, aren’t I? Alright. There’s this lorry driver with a beard, and he talks on his walkie-talkie to two other lorry drivers. They don’t have beards. Actually the young black guy might, but it’s less lustrous than the first lorry driver’s. The other guy, the brother from Rocky, definitely doesn’t have a beard. They drive their lorries along, and talk gibberish on their walkie-talkies. Then they get stopped for speeding by Ernest Borgnine, playing the same role he did in From Here To Eternity. They were speeding and they pay a fine, but they think, and we are supposed to agree, that making lorry drivers obey the speed limit is some kind of fascist act. Also, Ernest Borgnine has his own walkie-talkie which means he’s corrupt somehow, but I didn’t quite follow that. Beard guy 1 (Rubber Duck******) and Borgnine “go way back” and we’ll have to wait for the dénouement before we find out how. Oh, yeah, and Ali McGraw’s in a sports car with a face made of teak and a haircut I can only describe as Liverpudlian.
So our three trucketeers go off to a truck stop. Ali McGraw’s there. Rubber Duck goes off to have sex in his lorry with a waitress. She doesn’t seem very happy about it, but is also quite insistent that it occur. She seems certain that Beardy Duck will later have sex with Ali McGraw, most likely in the same lorry. The Duck’s facial expression has not changed once so far. Whilst the duck and the waitress are stoically copulating in a cubby hole behind the driver’s seat, the other two, known as Pigpen and, oh, I don’t know. Something else. Black Guy possibly. I’m not watching it again. Anyway, them, Porthos and Aramis, notice Borgnine and some other nameless policemen driving intothe truck stop. So they get on their walkie-talkies and call him names. Borgnine no like – big old fight ensues. It’s supposed to call to mind tavern brawls from classic westerns, but it doesn’t. It calls to mind The Dukes of Hazzard. The truckers are getting the worst of it, partly because the police have, as noted above, unexplained, possibly supernatural, reinforcements to call upon. Then Duck returns, kicks some Borgnine arse, and the fight’s over. The truckers handcuff the unconscious policemen to bar stools, steal their guns and run away, heading for the state line. Like the American heroes that they are. Is this sounding weird to anyone else yet? I’m as opposed to “the man” as the next unthinking moron, but beating a public servant into a coma and stealing his weapon seems a bit, well, psychotic. Also, and I’m no expert, but it seems likely to me that serious assault of a law enforcement officer and theft of a deadly weapon is probably illegal in all of the states. Indeed, I suspect that crossing the state line probably makes it worse, rather than better. But what do I know? Anyhoo, Ali McGraw gets in Duck’s truck for some reason. Several other truckers who weren’t really involved in the fight decide to follow them, also for some reason, and the convoy is born.
Then it gets weird.******* What follows is a ten minute sequence of trucks driving through dust. The landscape is exquisite, all purple mountains majesty and that stuff. There’s a sense of Peckinpah waking up a bit here and his use of slow motion and cross fading reminds one unavoidably of The Wild Bunch. It also brought sharply into relief just how much this isn’t The Wild Bunch. The super slo-mo used in the earlier film takes something brutal and horrifying and transforms it into something mesmeric and almost beautiful. It might be a cliché now, but I watched The Wild Bunch again recently, and the power of the last ten minutes has not been diminished by its legion of imitators. Here the super slo-mo takes something big, a lorry, and slows it down, so that we can look at it for longer. The slo-mo doesn’t work, because there aren’t enough moving parts visible on a truck – it isn’t like a man working a machine gun, or a man being hit by machine gun fire. Nope, it’s a truck, moving slowly across the screen. In some dust. There was never going to be the same balletic, graceful result here, because trucks don’t dance.
So, they get through the dust, speed up a bit, and cross the state line where it turns out that I was right all along. The police in the new state are after them too! This new information, which seemingly renders the last twenty minutes of film, and indeed the whole premise of the narrative, pointless, is dealt with by completely ignoring it. The convoy must continue! First though, Black Widow, who’s a widow and black, and the only female truck driver in the convoy, must be seen rolling her truck, so that someone else can drive her about, as is right and proper for a lady. Hilariously, she rolls her truck by driving around a corner. A dangerous and foolhardy manoeuvre which she had managed to avoid in her lorry-driving career up to this date.
The convoy keeps getting bigger; other truckers keep talking nonsense******** and joining onto the end of the convoy, and soon it’s over a mile long. Many of them express admiration for “what y’all (Rubber Duck, Pigpen, Black Guy et al) are doin’” and how it would be “an honour to get in your back door.” This felt like a surprisingly realistic and brave depiction of the life of the long distance lorry driver to me, and I waited expectantly for the scene where the duck and another trucker shyly slope off to a public convenience. Alas, I had misunderstood the slang, once again. You don’t get buggered in a Peckinpah movie unless you’re Susan George.
Here’s the thing, though – what happens to all of the cargo whilst these knights of the road are driving in a line? The duck is carrying explosive liquid, which is handy when the bears threaten to shoot him from a helicopter, but they can’t all be carrying napalm. Pigpen, for example, is carrying pigs. No mention is made of feeding, watering or releasing the animals, so I can only assume that they die in the back of his lorry as he bafflingly motors through Arizona. The other truckers complain at the beginning about the smell of his rig, I can’t imagine it gets any better as they drive through Death Valley.
I’ve kind of lost my place a bit here. The convoy was getting bigger. The police are chasing them. The convoy is now on the news and towns that they drive through are having parades and majorettes and shit like that to wish the convoy good luck, because America loves truckers. This is another thing I don’t buy. It’s clear that Kristofferson and Peckinpah thought there was something noble and epic about being a truck driver, but I’m not convinced that America would have agreed with them. I think the defining trucker movie of the seventies was not Convoy, but 1971’s Duel. In Spielberg’s film, the dual (ha!) terrors are the unending isolation of the American landscape, and the faceless, small-minded psychopathy of a truck driver. This craziness and violence, coupled with the utter refusal of the truck driver to stop or even slow down, is very, very similar to the behaviour of the truckers in Convoy, only now we’re supposed to be rooting for them. No-one bothered to write a reason why we should be rooting for them, though, and so, when the convoy stretches over two miles of road, and press and senatorial aides are questioning its leaders through megaphones, and we’ve all forgotten that this started because some truckers beat up some policemen; well, they needed to come up with a cause. So, about an hour into the film the truckers start to talk about the iniquity of a new law, one that is threatening their very livelihoods. It is the unfairness, the sheer cruelty of this new law which has galvanised a nation in support of the heroic truckers and their two mile long protest. For too long decent, hard-working truckers have stood idly by while big government ruins the country they love, but now their limits have been reached, and breached. Up with this we shall not put, they cry as one. There will be no national speed limit! For fuck’s sake.
Ali McGraw thinks Duck should talk to the press and the senator, so they can hear “what he’s got to say.” Why McGraw, who’s been present all along, imagines that he has anything to say other than “I’m terribly sorry. Please don’t imprison me for ever. I accept I shouldn’t have stolen a firearm from a peace officer upon whom I’d committed GBH” isn’t satisfactorily explained. Now McGraw and the duck have the sex that the waitress, that gingham-clad Cassandra, had so expertly prophesied only hours beforehand. There’s a great deal of hair, and the cubby hole looks even less enticing than it did when duck serviced the waitress in it. For a start, we know it hasn’t been cleaned.
Then some other stuff happens, including the abduction and assault of Black Guy *********(Spider Mike! I knew it would come to me) by Borgnine, who’s still in it. The truckers drive off to rescue Spider Mike from Borgnine and do so, destroying most of a small Texas town in the process. So now they’re heading for Mexico, as no simple state line will suffice. But they don’t get there, as Borgnine has a machine gun and a small army and blows the shit out of the duck’s truck. The burning truck smashes off a bridge and plummets a long way into a churning river. There’s no way he’s survived. So the fact that he has survived, and that his survival is explained away by a cheesy line, is just a bit rubbish.**********
I had quite a lot of fun watching this. I was drinking, obviously, though clearly not as much as Peckinpah was. It’s a deeply stupid film and, should you expend the energy in thinking about it, it’s probably quite offensive. The politics, such as they are, are laughable. I’ve not mentioned the fact that Duck is proudly independent of the Teamsters union, and shoehorns the fact into conversation twice. Or the conversation where he talks about his three kids from whom he is deliberately absent – “they got a good mother.” Peckinpah seemed genuinely to think that opposition to the national speed limit was a decent enough peg upon which to hang his film. He was wrong.
Convoy was Peckinpah’s most financially successful film, which is in and of itself, enough of a reason to pray for the rapture. Kristofferson went on to squint beardily at things in a few more films, till people realised that a leading man with an immovable face wrapped in wool was a stupid idea***********. Ali McGraw’s character is pointless and her performance is irritating; taking the role in Convoy basically destroyed her career. Borgnine was the best thing in it, and you could see glimpses of the greatness that he would later achieve in Airwolf.
The re-issue of Convoy is available for sale now, and whilst I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it, I also can’t deny that I had a blast.
*Well, that and swearing.
** Discarded opening no.1) Welcome to 1978, where men are men, beards are acceptable and everybody, from truck drivers to poorly-conceived Christian hippy cults, know better than to trust the man.
***Discarded opening no.2) Their right-wingers are not like our right-wingers. Show Norman Tebbit an armed policeman and a long-haired fugitive and you know which side he’ll be on. In this, as in so much else, the Atlantic is like a relay lens or distorting mirror. Nothing is as we’d expect.
****Discarded opening no.3) In 1988 celebrated director Martin Scorsese surprised his admirers with a move into science fiction. Star Trekkin’ based on the hit song of the same name was a tonally fractured piece, at times meditative, at times violent . . . no. Wait. That couldn’t possibly have happened, right?
*****Breaker, breaker 1-9, come on. Who wouldn’t want to listen to almost two hours of that?
******Joy of joys! When I squeeze you, you make noise!
*******Then? Seriously, then?
********Seriously, I watched this whole film and I was none the wiser at the end. It’s like watching Generation Kill, if Generation Kill was about people failing to deliver goods on time.
********* The film is very clear on the fact that, whilst all police are racists, truckers from the deep south are, to a man, members of the NAACP.
**********Yep, that’s a spoiler. A spoiler for a 35-year-old film that I’ve just spent 2,500 words telling you is shit.
***********A brief glance at Kristofferson’s Wikipedia page is an eye-opener, though. Not only is the man a rugby-playing English teacher, he wrote ‘Sunday Morning, Coming Down’. Pretty cool, no?