I cannot think of any other film in history that did so well at the box office (even with such universally bad reviews) but which had such a bad reputation during its making that its director, the admittedly cantankerous Sam Peckinpah, was basically exiled one more time from an industry that he had so shaken up just a few short years before. But that's what was to be had from his 1978 film CONVOY. And unfortunately, it was a cocaine problem Peckinpah had that was so extreme during its making that when word got around, he could find absolutely no work again in Hollywood until 1982, when he got a shot at a comeback by doing THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND.
Scripted by B.W.L. Norton (of CISCO PIKE fame) and based very loosely on the 1975-76 C.W. McCall C&W/pop crossover hit of the same name, CONVOY, though originally intended as a congenial truck-driving comedy along the lines of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, somehow evolved into what might be called a modern-day version of THE WILD BUNCH, only on wheels, and with a lot less violence. Kris Kristofferson, who did a great turn as Billy The Kid in the director's 1973 Western masterpiece PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, stars as Rubber Duck, an interstate truck driver who is trying to make a living off of his profession but feels he is being hemmed in by the 55 MPH speed limit. And when he gets a lot of his fellow truck drivers, and a curious journalist (Ali MacGraw), involved, it is really quite reluctantly, until he runs afoul of a very nasty New Mexico sheriff (Ernest Borgnine) who's not only got a thing against truck drivers of Kristofferson's ilk, but even a latent streak of racism as well, when he and some fellow lawman tangle with a black trucker, Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye). Kristofferson and MacGraw get involved, but Kristofferson knows it is not meant to be, especially with Borgnine constantly breathing down his neck. Various huge action and chase scenes involving what seem to be a thousand big rigs and hundreds of cars, plus a couple of choppers thrown into the mix, lead up to Kristofferson challenging Borgnine at the crossing between Texas and Mexico, in which Borgnine and his cronies open fire of Kristofferson's big rig, causing it and him to fall with explosive results into the Rio Grande. But Kristofferson isn't quite as dead as everyone thinks
CONVOY ran well over budget and schedule during its making through much of the spring and summer of 1977, principally because of the director's aforementioned cocaine addiction, which almost led to his firing at a few points. And even as he was editing the film, with Garth Craven, the English editor who still knew Peckinpah's action/editing style the best, when it was released in the summer of 1978, the director, unlike on previous films, didn't even bother to contend with the recutting that producer Michael Deeley did on it. The subsequent exile from Hollywood that Peckinpah suffered because of CONVOY wasn't without incident, either; in May 1979, while living in Montana, he had a heart attack that nearly killed him then and there. By the time he got back to work on THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, he was a very depleted man; and though he made a concerted effort to quit his bad habits, it turned out to be too little, too late.
To CONVOY itself, now: For a very long time, hearing the stories about Peckinpah's "white powder" madness during its making, I was very hard on this film, considering it his worst. After a few times watching it again, even though its flaws are still there (the attempts at SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT-type comedy don't really work), the fact is that, under whatever substances or pressures, he was able to work as well with big rigs and all other things automotive in CONVOY as he had ever been with horses on his innovative Westerns. The action scenes, structured around the admittedly flimsy premise of a novelty record, are still shockingly well done, with the requisite multiple POV editing style and intercutting of slow motion and regular action that are part-and-parcel of his style. And he did get some good performances from the three principals, along with a cast that included Madge Sinclair (from the epic TV miniseries "Roots"), Cassie Yates, Burt Young (who had been in ROCKY, and Peckinpah's 1975 action film THE KILLER ELITE), Seymour Cassel (as the New Mexico governor), and Jorge Russek (as the racist Tex-Mex sheriff Tiny Alvarez).
Grievously flawed as this film was, and as "coked out" as Peckinpah was during its production, there are still things about CONVOY that make it a film well worth seeing. It's not THE WILD BUNCH or STRAW DOGS, to be sure; but just for the sheer ability of Peckinpah to conjure up a lot from what was very little to start with, it does more than most CGI-choked action films today. Just on that basis alone, it deserves the '7' rating I'm giving it here.
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