Kris Kristofferson as the Rubber Duck in Convoy.
1975 saw the release of the novelty song, "Convoy", about a group of long haul truckers, lead by the one known as the Rubber Duck, driving across America. The lyrics featured trucker slang and was catchy enough that it became not only a country hit, but also a crossover pop hit, spending six weeks atop the country charts and one week atop the pop charts. It is most often cited as the spark that ignited the CB fad of the 1970s. 1977's Smokey and the Bandit marks the apex of the trucker culture craze, while this film version of the song, released in 1978, is often cited as marking its end.
Although incredibly dated, there's also something very modern about this movie. Listen to this description. A group of dissatisfied citizens with loads of unspecified grievances gather together and occupy a street, sparking a movement that politicians and the press latch onto until the police move in and bust it up. Okay, so it's not Wall Street, but the highway and instead of camping out, these guys are driving semis, but the similarities are definitely there.
Kris Kristofferson stars as Rubber Duck, a trucker who gets in a fight with the police lead by corrupt cop Dirty Lyle (Ernest Borgnine) at a truck stop in Arizona. He and his friends take off in their trucks for the New Mexico State Line. Along the way they become a symbol for the dissatisfied in the country and before you know it they have a convoy filled with trucks of all sizes, including some long haired friends of Jesus in a micro-bus. Riding along with the Duck is Melissa, a photographer who hitches a ride from him, played by Ali McGraw with the most unflattering haircut ever put on film.
The problem with the movie is that although it is completely ridiculous, it is played completely straight and heavy. Director Sam Peckinpah, near the end of his career, has the light touch of an anvil. The fight scenes are done with plenty of slow motion and some of the car chases are accompanied by classical music. It tries to have a political point, but doesn't manage it, another thing in common with the Occupy Wall Streeters. Even the funny moments aren't that funny. Peckinpah just doesn't seem to know how to handle comedy.
You'd think that at least the chase scenes would be well done, since the entire movie is one extended chase, but they're not. The police act as if they are powerless to stop the convoy, which is explained partly by the fact that Rubber Duck is hauling explosives and they don't want him to explode, but there are hundreds of trucks traveling with him, why can't they just cut off the trucks traveling behind him when they slow down to drive through towns, which they do instead of sticking to the highway, for unexplained reasons. And none of these trucks need to stop for gas?
While counterculture heroes were all the rage in the 1970s, from today's perspective I wasn't exactly rooting for these guys. To rescue their friend from jail at the end of the movie, they drive their trucks through a town, plowing through buildings and destroying businesses with reckless abandon. If the movie had been played lighter, I wouldn't have minded, but since it's trying to be serious, I just kept thinking that instead of heroes, these guys were public menaces.
This was another one of those movies that HBO played over and over again in the early 1980s. At the time, when I was about 12 years old, I remember enjoying it. Now I'm just left to wonder what my younger self was thinking.
Sheriff Lyle gets caught in a trap in Convoy.
Like Scott, I have fond memories of watching Convoy on HBO as a kid. Young people of today can have no idea just how exciting it was to see an unedited, commercial free movie right in your living room. Trust me when I say it was a very big entertainment event. If memory serves me correctly, Convoy was the debut movie the Nash household watched on Home Box Office, circa 1980.
Scott pointed out the biggest problem, which is the lack of a dramatic arc or any real point to the convoy. The truckers have a brawl with some police, then go on the run, gaining followers along the way. That's it. It's realistic only in the sense that (as the OWS movement proved) humans love to participate in a protest even when its point is as vague as the one here. As a movie plot though, it is sadly lacking.
Director Sam Peckinpah saw himself as an outsider, so no doubt the theme of this movie appealed to him. He lived life hard, abusing alcohol and drugs and marrying three times. He died at the relatively young age of 59. Although he had been on the cutting edge of American cinema just a few years earlier, by the time he made Convoy his style of film making - utilizing many zooming closeups and slow motion action scenes for dramatic effect - already seemed old fashioned. He would direct just one more feature film after this one, 1983's The Osterman Weekend.
The 1970s was a golden age for American highway movies featuring charismatic antiheroes leading inept police on high speed chases. The chase scenes in Convoy are all pretty much derivative of the many movies that came before it, in particular Smokey and the Bandit. Although it's nowhere near as clever. And that movie had a sense of humor.
As Scott pointed out, Convoy makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. Compare Kris Kristofferson's humorless persona as Rubber Duck with the shit eating grin on Burt Reynolds' face as the Bandit, or Ernest Borgnine's deadly earnest Sheriff Lyle 'Cottonmouth' Wallace in contrast to Jackie Gleason's caricature of one as Buford T. Justice. They're obvious imitations, but far inferior in entertainment value. And don't get me started on the whole Ali MacGraw vs. Sally Field argument. That one's a no brainer.
It's funny how memory works. I hadn't seen Convoy in more than 30 years but several scenes left a vivid imprint on me. In one of the more creative action sequences, two of the truckers trap the Sheriff's car in between their semis on the highway and proceed to smash his car between them (see photo). When the Sheriff finally gets freed and radios for help he looks down disgustedly at the man sitting next to him and asks for a new pair of pants. As a kid I found the thought of these grown men soiling themselves out of fear, to be hilarious. I also could still clearly picture the scene where they smash through the small town to rescue the black trucker that has been arrested and beaten up as bait to lure Rubber Duck.
Scott, I understand why we loved this movie so much back then. We were just kids and didn't know any better. Now we do. In the lingo of the movie, “Breaker breaker, that's a big 10-4 good buddy.”
Ali MacGraw and Kris Kristofferson in Convoy
Truck drivers have the job of getting paid to haul product from point “A” to point “B” and doing it within a predetermined time frame. Yet, if you were to judge their occupation based on this film, you would think they did not have any schedule to keep what-so-ever. When Black Widow’s truck tips over, she merely leaves it alongside the road with the lumber she was hauling. Rubber Duck proudly states at one point that he is an independent driver as if that somehow means he can work at his own pace. Who would hire this guy? Other truckers later join in the convoy for the hell of it, going in whatever direction Rubber Duck leads them.
Other than getting caught speeding, these drivers seem to not have any care in the world, acting almost like free roaming cowboys in the old west. In fact, the fight in the truck stop is very reminiscent of a saloon fight in any number of old western movies. When all the truckers decide to head out toward the state line, one even yells, “Yahoo!”.
As my brothers wrote, the movie plays very heavy but Peckipaw did attempt to insert some humor. During the truck stop fight, the owner makes comments such as; “Add that to his tab.” after one man gets thrown through a glass case. When being chased by the police, Melissa sarcastically says that causing a dust cover will stop the police from finding them and Rubber Ducks adds that his plan also involves putting on fish costumes. I never said it was good humor.
The truck stop scene also features a moment that belongs in a different movie. Apparently Rubber Duck frequents this diner so often that he has been having an affair with one of the waitresses who is already in a relationship with someone else. They go off to his truck to have sex. She puts a ribbon around her breasts and tells Rubber Duck to unwrap his birthday present. The problem I have with this scene is that the actress acts so pathetically sad that she almost seems like she is being coerced. They are having sex in his rig on her coffee break. The scene should have been played much less dramatic and more playful.
The entire plot of this movie is that one jerk cop harasses some truckers, and in doing so, gives these drivers carte blanche to break any street law they want. It does not make sense and I never felt the least bit of sympathy or interest in their escape. This is mostly due to the character of Sheriff Lyle. He is a walking talking stereotype of the decade. Country lawmen took a hit in the 70s, being portrayed as loud obnoxious bigots. Patrick mentioned Buford T. Justice, while I will add Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live and Let Die (1973) and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane from "The Dukes of Hazard". If Lyle had not been such a joke, I may have taken this a bit more seriously.
Convoy is an artifact from a world that never truly existed. Truck drivers are and were just people making a living. This movie glamorizes them by making them seem like renegades with a language and attitude all their own. They used CB’s because they were bored, not clever. As a kid I thought Rubber Duck taking the law into his own hands was cool as hell. Watching him as an adult, I see him more from the perspective of Sheriff Lyle, “A two bit, lying, cheating law breaker.”
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1978)