I’m never sure about the term ‘guilty pleasure’; how guilty should I feel, and what real pleasure is there to be gained? But it does feel somewhat wrong to be having a good time watching Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 truckers-unite-against-the-authorities movie. Why? Because the legendary director was allegedly too drunk or too high to come out of his trailer, leaving pal James Coburn to handle much of the shoot? Because the whole enterprise was considered to be a cynical cash-grab on the back of a hit novelty song (Convoy by fictional singer CW McCall aka Bill Fries)? Or just because Convoy is a sh*t-ugly, pompous monstrosity of a movie, leavened by corn-poke humour and endlessly savoured violence? This is a misbegotten movie in several ways, but even decades later, it’s still a good time for those with an attitude for destruction..
I first saw Convoy as the BBC’s Boxing Day blockbuster in 1980, in a cut, panned and scanned and generally ruined version; it’s nice to see it now in a proper wide-screen print on streaming, with memorable opening shots of Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson) in his truck, barrelling along a snowy interstate beside the petite sports-car driven by Ali McGraw. Rubber Duck and his trucker friends find themselves on the wrong side of the law after a bar-room ruckus with Sherrif Lyle (Ernest Borgnine) gets out of hand. To prove the innocent, the truckers put out a call on one of those new fangled CB radios, and soon, half the country is either in their convoy, or egging them on from the side-lines…
Convoy is one rough and ready movie, with acres of male-camaraderie and roughhousing, but little of the nuance of Peckinpah’s best work ‘We’re the last of a breed’ agree the protagonist and antagonist; while films like The Wild Bunch made this a developed theme, it’s just blurted out in spitball style here. But the action is wild; when the Sherriff steals a hot rod from a stoner couple, he ends up flying through a billboard and several rooftops in extraordinary slow-mo carnage that still looks incredible today. And while the soundtrack experiments with rock and rinky-dink piano accompaniment for the vehicular action, the highlight is a dust ballet in which McCall’s hit song is somehow repurposed as classical music.
With a scuzzy support (Burt Young! Seymour Cassell!) and tonnes of second unit mayhem, Convoy reflects a down and dirty time in the US, but it’s refreshingly un-PC and still packs a rousing punch in places. Convoy is Vanishing Point with trucks, a nihilistic journey into the world of American individualism with a jaunty soundtrack. It’s a bad film, but it’s also an addictively watchable one; not Peckinpah’s best, but a compromised vision that not surprisingly found fortune in Russia with its pro-worker mindset. The Soviet Cinema Board felt that the film reflected ‘just anger on the part of those who have suffered injustices at the hands of American authorities. Ordinary Americans watching this film see not desperate rebels, but a mighty fist of the working man.’ As the song says, aint’s that a beautiful sight?