Well, it looks like we’ve got ourselves a Convoy!
The 1978 film Convoy opens with the image of a truck passing by some hills that have been covered with snow. At a certain point, it actually looks like the truck is descending into a sea of white powder. It’s an appropriate image because, to film lovers and cinematic historians, Convoy will always be associated with cocaine.
Convoy was meant to be a relatively small-scale B-movie, one that was meant to capitalize on the popularity of a novelty song, as well as the recent success of other car chase films. Instead, it became a notoriously troubled production that went famously overbudget and overschedule as director Sam Peckinpah turned Convoy into a personal statement about modern cowboys and independence. When the film was finally released, it was the biggest box office hit of Peckinpah’s storied career. However, because so much money had been spent making the film, it still failed to make a profit and the film is regularly described as being one of the many flops of the late 70s that eventually led to the power in the film industry shifting away from the directors and over to the studio executives. Many in Hollywood grumbled that it was Peckinpah’s well-known cocaine use that led to him having such trouble with what should have been a simple B-movie. That’s probably a bit unfair to Peckinpah as it’s been written that just about everyone in Hollywood was using cocaine in 1978.
Add to that …. Convoy‘s not that bad.
Convoy tells the story of Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson), a legendary trucker who has never joined the Teamsters. He’s an independent. Rubber Duck’s nemesis is Sheriff Dirty Lyle (Ernest Borgnine), who is also an independent. He’s never joined the policeman’s union. As Rubber Duck puts it, “There’s not many like us anymore.”
Anyway, for reasons that are only vaguely defined, Rubber Duck leads a convoy of trucks across the southwest while being pursued by the police. It has something to do with protesting the law enforcement tactics of Dirty Lyle, despite the fact that Rubber Duck appears to kind of like Lyle. Soon hundreds of other independent truckers are joining Rubber Duck’s convoy, all to protest law enforcement. Among those in the convoy are Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair), and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), who just wants to get home to his pregnant wife. Traveling with Rubber Duck is Melissa (Ali MacGraw), who is supposed to be some sort of photojournalist. Rubber Duck and Melissa fall in love but there’s only so much you can do with a love story when it centers around two of the least expressive stars of the 70s. During the chase, Rubber Duck picks up some non-truckers supporters, including some religious fanatics in a microbus. He and the truckers also drive through and destroy a lot of buildings, which kind of makes it look like the cops might have had a point.
What sets Convoy apart from other chase films of the 70s is just how seriously it takes itself. There’s an undercurrent of melancholy that runs through the entire film. Rubber Duck seems to know that America is changing and as people become more comfortable with the idea of sacrificing their freedoms, his days as an independent trucker are numbered. Dirty Lyle also seems to be stuck in a permanent existential crisis, taking no joy in being a crook but still forced to do so by being a part of an inherently corrupt government system. There’s a scene where a truckstop waitress offers herself up as a gift to Rubber Duck on his birthday and Peckinpah films it as if he’s making an Italian neorealist drama about Rome after the war. When Spider Mike says that he has to get home to his wife, he says it with the pain of a man who knows that the system only cares about control and not happiness. These aren’t just truckers. These are men and women who are on the front lines battling a creeping culture of oppression.
Surprisingly enough, the film’s serious tone actually works to its advantage. You may not fully understand why Rubber Duck is leading that convoy but you hope that it succeeds because you get the feeling that the world might end if it doesn’t. When the film ends with Ernest Borgnine laughing like a maniac, it comes across less like a moment of amusement and more like an acknowledgment that the universe is a tragic farce. Life is a riddle wrapped inside an engima and only Rubber Duck and Dirty Lyle seem to understand that fact.
Add to that, this is a film about independents refusing to allow themselves to be limited by the regulatory state. In its way, it’s one of the most sincerely Libertarian films ever made and, with all of us currently living under “lockdowns” and hoping that our governors don’t join those who have already surrendered their better instincts to their inner tyrant (sorry, Michigan, Kentucky, and New Jersey), Convoy remains an important film. Go, Rubber Duck, go!