The Film: 4/5
"We got a great big convoy rockin' through the night. Yeah, we got a great big convoy, ain't she a beautiful sight?" The first time I heard the familiar chorus from C.W. McCall's 1975 pop country novelty hit "Convoy" was in a third season episode of The Simpsons. Never before in my life had the song ever been played on the radio, leading me to wonder if it had been played out long prior to my birth. A few years after that Simpsons episode I was reading If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, David Weddle's compulsively enjoyable biography of the legendary filmmaker, and discovered to a combination of amazement, amusement, and complete pants-shitting horror that the man who had helmed such iconic masterpieces of the cinema such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid actually made a movie based on McCall's popular little ditty. Convoy, produced by EMI Films and released theatrically in June 1978, was Peckinpah's most reviled feature. The one that he had to have made at his most desperate and cash-strapped. The one where there was no longer any question that a man who had broke new ground for the presentation of action and violence in cinema had completely sold out.
Oh, and it was also the biggest box office hit of his career. Seriously. Convoy grossed over $45 million at the box office and that was back in the day before studios insisted on having a new big-budget tentpole blockbuster wannabe ready for release every weekend. The competition wasn't exactly stiff. The movie was built upon a foundation that consisted solely of the song's fleeting success on the charts and the public's insatiable appetite for anything remotely related to trucker culture. The previous summer Smokey and the Bandit was the only flick to hold its own at the theaters against the juggernaut of the original Star Wars, the very same cultural hurricane that had obliterated William Friedkin's high tension Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer. People who had never sat in the cab of a truck were hanging out at truck stops and working phrases such as "breaker, breaker" and "10-4, good buddy" into their everyday vernacular. History has proven again and again that human beings, especially white people, are quick to embrace a culture they wouldn't otherwise have anything to do with on the off chance it might make them appear hip and trendy for a temporary period. Just ask Vanilla Ice.
Peckinpah's reputation as a brilliant but difficult filmmaking talent was established the moment he took the reigns of his first studio feature, the glorious clusterfuck Major Dundee. After that film had wrapped following a production that would make for an even better watch the director was sent packing back to television until The Wild Bunch finally put him right square at the top. His battles with the brass at MGM over Pat Garrett almost destroyed his career, a task that his next film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia finished with little effort. Garcia was Peckinpah's Citizen Kane, a bleak and depraved journey into the soul of a complex anti-hero whose personality sported more than a little resemblance to his creator, and one that he had almost total control over from the development of the screenplay to the final edit. Outside of the World War II epic Cross of Iron Peckinpah would never again be permitted to bring a personal project to fruition. Two of his final films, The Killer Elite and The Osterman Weekend, were based on trashy pulp novels and hardly represented the director at the peak of his powers behind the camera, but in their special way they were damn good fun as movies. Even if Peckinpah wasn't always at his best I believe it was impossible for the man to make an outright bad film. Convoy, a movie that may I remind you all was based on a freakin' novelty tune, is the proof I needed to make that faith ironclad and unshakable.
From the moment he was hired on to direct Convoy Peckinpah began rewriting or throwing out as much of the screenplay by Bill L. Norton (More American Graffiti) as he could get away with. He encouraged his actors - including past collaborators Kris Kristofferon, Ali MacGraw, Ernest Borgnine, and Burt Young - to junk Norton's dialogue and come up with their own. Had the production stuck chiefly to the original script there's a good chance Convoy would have ended up the most forgettable movie Peckinaph ever made. Instead the director and his cast refashioned a workmanlike effort into one of the last true road films of the decade that gave us some of the greatest in the genre and an elegiac companion piece to The Wild Bunch. The McCall song was cleverly orchestrated into a Greek chorus that always seems cued up to proceed even during scenes where other songs (such as Doc Watson's beautiful rendition of "Keep On the Sunny Side" and Merle Haggard's classic hippie hater anthem "Okie from Muskogee") and the original score by Chip Davis (who co-wrote the song with McCall - a.k.a. William Fries Jr. - and later founded Mannheim Steamroller) dominate the soundtrack, and there are a few visual and verbal nods to the song sprinkled throughout the story.
From the song Peckinpah crafted a modern day Spartacus where the slaves are embattled long haul truckers and the Romans are bigoted local cops who chomp on cheap cigars as they abuse their modest authority. Every profession is getting unionized, especially the truckers, and independent operators like Rubber Duck (Kristofferson) and his cohorts Pig Pen (Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye) are getting squeezed out every day. Not even the Duck's longtime nemesis Sheriff Lyle "Cottonmouth" Wallace (Borgnine) is safe from the gradual encroachment of progress. Lyle wants nothing to do with a changing world and is just fine with extorting hefty fines from truckers looking to avoid jail time and locking up anyone who so much as looks at him funny. When he attempts to hassle Mike in a roadside restaurant a massive brawl ensues between Duck's gang and the law. The truckers' next course of action is to get on the road pronto and make for the state line before Lyle comes to and catches up. Unfortunately the proverbial wheels have been set in motion and the rubber is meeting the road with a vengeance as the obsessed lawman begins a tiresome pursuit through the states of Arizona and New Mexico. But the Duck and his friends witness their ranks swell when other truckers join their cause, creating a mile-long procession of big rigs that grows every day and starts to gain support from other ordinary citizens. Rubber Duck has become the reluctant leader of this working class revolution and along for the ride is Melissa (MacGraw), a photographer who was originally headed for Dallas before she decided to join the truckers' crusade that culminates in a meeting with the shrewd New Mexico governor (Seymour Cassel), the destruction of an entire small Texas town, and a final explosive showdown with Cottonmouth and a National Guard unit at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sam Peckinpah could still make great entertainment even when he was working with material that didn't particularly get his creative juices flowing. Convoy's virtues are all on the action front where the filmmaker excels every time, but as I pointed out before Peckinpah cleverly inserted some thought-provoking subtext into what could have been a pointless rip-off of Smokey and the Bandit. The chase sequences and automotive crack-ups were always going to be there in order to please the audience, but at least the director treated them as he would have the shootouts in his classic westerns - with dynamic, coherent execution. As pointed out in a documentary included on this Blu-ray, several stunts ended up on film that were not executed as originally planned. In fact they almost got people killed. Those set-pieces may lack the impact of the unflinchingly brutal finales of The Wild Bunch and Alfredo Garcia but they're still fun to watch, and Peckinpah and cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. (Little Big Man) capture the dusty, exhaust-spewing poetry of the trucks proceeding to a destination unknown against sparse landscapes and alien sunsets. "Bloody Sam" is clearly in his element here, at least for a while; his films were rarely devoid completely of humor but the stray comedy bits in Convoy feel forced and embarrassingly out of place. I'm sure Peckinpah tried to eliminate as much of the dumbass hilarity from the original script as possible but certain fleeting moments survived most likely because he didn't have final cut (his 3.5-hour original cut was pared down to a long but still tightened 110 minutes by editors Garth Craven, who also worked on Pat Garrett, and John Wright). The improvisation he encouraged among his cast gives the character interactions the loose, friendly feel of watching conversations and group gatherings in one of Robert Altman's films. They don't feel entirely authentic, but they are hardly synthetic.
Kristofferson, who I always considered to be way cooler than Burt Reynolds, makes for a level-headed and capable leading man who sweats empathy and could be seen as a leader of the common folk. MacGraw's presence here was probably so the producers could get another big star name on the movie poster, but although she plays a thankless character she does her job well. Young, Ajaye, and Madge Sinclair (Roots) all perform admirably with good-natured restraint and energy as Rubber Duck's fellow truckers. Borgnine does what he can with a role that was likely a one-note villain in the original script, but the inability to nail down the character means that the motivations of "Dirty Lyle" change from scene to scene. One minute he's a horrible racist piece of shit, the next he's sympathetic and even haunted. Donnie Fritts, a musician and keyboardist for Kristofferson who previously had small supporting roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia for Peckinpah (in the latter he played half of a pair of rapists who get blown away by Warren Oates; Kristofferson played the other half), has a small but memorable part as the leader of a band of Jesus freaks who join the convoy to bring them a spiritual center.
Studio Canal released an excellent Region B Blu-ray of Convoy in September 2013 and everything on that disc from the a/v quality to the extras appears to have been directly ported onto Kino Lorber's U.S. edition. Let's start with the transfer, which is top notch. The film was shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and that format has been graciously retained here allowing Stradling's expansive visuals all the room to breathe and live that they require. Upgraded to 1080p high-definition in an MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer, the video quality is better than any previous home video release of Convoy and features moderate grain and barely a trace of permanent damage or wear on the print. Brightness and color are solid and warm and the details have been sharpened and improved without having the picture look like the victim of excessive digital noise reduction. The Studio Canal Blu offered a trifecta of audio options but only the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has been held over by Kino. Thankfully it's a strong soundtrack with well-balanced volume levels, clear dialogue, boisterous music, and little distortion. Since the film was recorded and released in mono audio it wouldn't have benefited from a 5.1 remix. What we have here does its job and does it superbly. No subtitles have been included.
Film historians and Peckinpah biographers Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor are joined by fellow historian Nick Redman for an informative and conversational commentary track that delves deep into Convoy's complicated production history and offers multiple critical perspectives on how the finished product fits into the director's filmography. "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Trucker Movie" (73 minutes) is taken from a longer documentary about Peckinpah's life and career and assembles interviews with stars Kristofferson, MacGraw, and Borgnine, and executive producer Michael Deeley (plus a return appearance from Simmons) for a more detailed chronicle of the film's chaotic, heavily improvised filming. It's also an unflinching, warts-and-all portrait of a great cinematic artist in free fall slowly being consumed by drug addiction and alcoholism, but Peckinpah still comes across as a sympathetic person who merely wanted to make the best movie he could with the time and materials he was given in the beginning.
Next up is a quartet of short animated still galleries labeled as featurettes: "Promoting Convoy" (6 minutes) collects poster art and lobby cards from the film's release in the U.S. and various international territories; "Three Lost Scenes" (6 minutes) uses still photos and script pages to reconstruct some deleted scenes for which footage no longer exists; "In-Jokes, Friends, & Cameos" (6 minutes) is exactly what it sounds like; and finally we have "Production Stills" (3 minutes), a small collection of behind-the-scenes pics. "Trucker Notes from Norway" (3 minutes) is the most superfluous extra on this disc and features a Norwegian fan of Convoy offering up some useless trivia about the various big rigs used in the film. Closing things out are the original theatrical trailer (4 minutes), a U.S. television spot (1 minute), and radio spots (3 minutes).
Under the uninspired but spirited direction of Sam Peckinpah Convoy manages to transcend its novelty song origins to become a limber and fun slice of late 1970's entertainment that has more in common with films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point than Smokey and the Bandit. Thank goodness for that. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray takes everything great about the Studio Canal Region B disc and presents them here without change and that makes Convoy's U.S. debut in high-definition highly recommended. "Ain't she a beautiful sight?"