Ever heard the expression “The past is another country”? Well, watching Convoy these days, you may as well be watching footage from a distant alien planet. It’s weird to think these days that of all the things to catch on and become a massive craze would be CB radios and the trucking scene. Nevertheless, it did become a bit thing mainly kicked off by a 1975 country song by C.W. McCall, Convoy, and helped by films like Smokey and the Bandit. At the fad’s peak came this film, an adaptation of the song. So how well does a movie based on a novelty record to cash on a “I barely believe this even happened” fad hold up? About as well as you may expect…
Long haul trucker “Rubber Duck” (Kris Kristofferson) has a run in with dirty lawman Sheriff “Dirty Lyle” Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) over a matter of bribes. It ends with him, passenger Melissa (Ali MacGraw) and a whole bunch of fellow truckers on the run in their rigs across the state-line. Soon however a whole bunch more truckers end up joining them in protest, and what started as a simple run turns out to a state-wide phenomenon.
The biggest problem with this movie is the fact that the whole thing wants to be “sticking it to the man”, but it’s not clear what precisely about “the man” is wrong here. There’s certainly one dirty cop in here but it’s not at all clear what the overall goal of the convoy is or what is being stood for. It’s supposed to be a celebration of a free spirit but a spirit of what? This isn’t a matter of the script not being clear either. Rubber Duck (real name Martin Penwald; not a bad name actually) is actually directly asked about the whole thing several times. Pretty much every time he doesn’t have any sort of answer and tries to duck (appropriately) responsibility for it constantly. In a way it’s like a weird foreshadowing of the bit in Forest Gump of him running across America and everyone projecting onto him. However, when even the protagonist isn’t at all sure why he’s doing what he’s doing and doesn’t seem to care much, that doesn’t do wonders to selling it to the audience.
Another problem is one of tone. It’s clear that United Artists wanted the film to be a light sort of action tale like Smokey and the Bandit was. Thus it was not a great idea to get Sam Peckinpah to direct this. Peckinpah was a fine director, with a lot of strong titles under his belt, but he didn’t direct comedy, he didn’t have that lighter touch. The way many of the action scenes are shot, especially with the use of slow motion in parts, it’s still the way the shocking finale the ending of The Wild Bunch was shot. No amount of editing or shots of characters having wacky reactions to it can really change that. Thus seeing some fight scenes, where they’ve over edited the mayhem and with a banjo music soundtrack leads to a very awkward dissonance. Mind, Peckinpah was famously having a lot of problems with his health at the time.
As for the end result, well hope you like lots of long shots of trucks driving, as that’s most of what you’ll be seeing. The actors do what they can, but it’s hard to really develop good acting chemistry when most of your footage is sitting in the cab of the truck, talking to the other character over CB. Speaking of CB, they do lay the radio talk on thick; good buddy, 10-4. You may need some manner of translator to get what the characters are saying a lot of the time. The film does have some plus points, like Ernest Brognine always being good to watch, and the stunts are well done. But by the time it reaches the Vanishing-Point-only-copping-out climax, this feels a lot longer than it actually is.
Overall, Convoy is a film that has dated badly rather than aged well. It’s fascinating to see as a time capsule of an odd period in American pop-culture. It also shows the way that sometimes with Hollywood, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We scoff at the studios running out of ideas with Battleship the movie, or even the serious suggestion of one based on Grumpy Cat. However, looking back to see them make one of a then three year old novelty record, cashing in on a trend that later would be called “internet for rednecks”, and you realise it’s not a new thing at all.