For the heck of it: Convoy (1978)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Call Convoy a failure if you will (albeit not a commercial one). Hell, call it a lesser Sam Peckinpah film, if you insist. I call it a piece of anarchist poetry (taking my cue from Pauline Kael and her calling The Killer Elite nihilist poetry in 1976). The film was shot during a low period in Peckinpah’s career, when alcoholism and drug abuse were plaguing him. His friend, the actor James Coburn, who is credited as a second unit director, reportedly shot part of the film, while the director remained in his trailer, according to David Weddle’s biography If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em!: The Life and TImes of Sam Peckinpah. The director even told Garth Craven, one of the film’s editors, that he hadn’t done “one good day’s work on this picture – not one day that I really felt I’d put it all together” (Weddle, p. 517).
The movie is indeed rather plotless, and may seem chaotic. But if it’s a mess, it’s a marvelous, anarchic mess, that revels in the images of the long trucks in the vast, empty highways. There is a scene, scored with an orchestral piece by Chip Davis apparently (credited with the film’s music), even though the track was not released as part of the official soundtrack and it seems impossible to unearth, where the trucks drive off the highway along a desert trail, simply kicking off dust while following one another, in criss-crossing, overlapping movements. Absolutely nothing happens, but the scene is shot with a gracefulness and beauty that would become ballet dancers. The mock-classical music score even lends a comic undertone to the bit, but Peckinpah is admiring, if anything, and the comic element is not condescending, merely arising in the contrast of music and the way the movement of the trucks is edited.
More importantly, it revels in the defiance of the law, especially law as represented by police authority – the stress being on authority, and by extension authoritarian and arbitrary. Corrupt sheriff Dirty Lyle (played by Ernest Borgnine) is constantly harassing the truckers, imposing fines for speed and blackmailing bribes out of them, just because he can. His targeting of Spider Mike, the black truck driver, is a further demonstration of abuse of authority, revealing deep inequalities in 70s America, that remain unresolved till today. Yet Mike is not only accepted as an equal by his peers, but his incarceration, when he strays from the convoy to reach his wife who is giving birth to their child, gives rise to the pivotal scene of the film: the truck drivers, manifesting their solidarity with the badly beaten, unfairly sequestered Mike, rush into the small town with their trucks destroying everything in their wake. There is something immensely gratifying in watching the trucks obliterate the flimsy wooden structures, and rushing into the prison headlong to liberate Mike.
When the main character, Martin Penwald, nicknamed “Rubber Duck” confronts Lyle, even though it was not he who beat Mike, their dialogue encapsulates not only the film’s anarchic spirit, but also its scathing criticism of police brutality and abuse (from 4.30):
Duck: You tell me old man, what good are you?
Lyle: I am the law. Don’t you understand? I represent the law.
Duck: Well, piss on you. And piss on your law.
Lyle: You oughta be shot right where you’re standing. So help me, if I had a gun, I’d do it myself.
Duck: And that badge’d make it all right, wouldn’t it?
There are blind spots, of course. No one would blame Ali MacGraw’s character, Melissa, for dropping everything on the spot to follow the Duck (a dazzlingly handsome Kris Kristofferson), but she is underwritten, with no definite motivation. That female characters never really interested Peckinpah is not necessarily a flaw of the film, though. Only during an era of wrongly labeled political correctness, this would constitute a problem. If I want strongly written female characters, I will obviously not turn to Peckinpah and blame him for their lack. I will look elsewhere.
Convoy, in its depiction of the spontaneous reaction of the truck drivers and their almost contagious protest (that is quickly seized upon by a self-serving Seymour Cassel, on his way to the Senate), also shows, intentionally or not, the problems of a social movement with no clear agenda, that has been organized around the figure of a single leader. The movement inevitably collapses, but the film’s jubilant conclusion serves as an affirmation of its anarchic spirit. And where else, in a film of the 70s (or even later) will you find a black female truck driver (also accepted as an equal by her peers) kicking a police officer on the ground in a diner fight?