Convoy suggests a missing link between the western and the C.B. trucker movies that were briefly popular in the late 1970s, elaborating on both as stories of disenfranchised men doing what men gotta do. Stripped to their essence, both genres revel in variations of a single inviting image of freedom, in which figures navigate open landscapes that remain largely untouched by urban development, though such “civilizing” is usually understood to be on its way into the terrain. The heroes, and even some of the villains, of both types of film usually have the same aim: to stay alive as freelancers in an era that encourages working for the Man, which might be represented by law enforcement, unions, ranchers, barons, or anyone else who seeks to steer the West into the hands of what the characters perceive to be dictatorial rule. These genres, especially the western, are celebrations of free enterprise, not as it’s presently known in the age of global mega-corporations that rig competition from the outset, but as an uncorrupted ideal of the American man as contemporary ronin.
Despite its poor reputation, much of Convoy is amazingly, surpassingly beautiful, rendering the huge tractor trailers graceful, seemingly weightless. The vehicles cut through the expressively hot western tableaus with an ease and a sense of fluidity that’s rarely been managed by action directors, with the occasional exception of someone like Steven Spielberg or George Miller. The editing rarely calls attention to itself, as it does in even greater Sam Peckinpah films; the rhythm of the shot alternation is intangibly right and exhilarating. Peckinpah doesn’t rely much on the awkward interior inserts (of the actors pretending to drive the trucks) that tend to turn these sorts of pursuit films into chop-jobs of visual pacing, instead favoring voiceover that tends efficiently to the scant plot while allowing the ballad between land, human, and machine to speak for itself.
Unfortunately, the plot, such as it is, interferes anyway. Peckinpah labors mightily attempting to attach one of his western morality plays to a bawdy chase film. Certain logistically impressive set pieces, such as a bridge stand-off that quotes a similar sequence from The Wild Bunch, lard the sensual aesthetic with a sacrificial Christ metaphor that’s more reminiscent of the half-baked sentimentality of the overrated Easy Rider than of the idiosyncratically conflicted, searing macho politics of classic Peckinpah films. Convoy’s problem has been misdiagnosed by critics who share the director’s skittishness with drive-in movies. The film isn’t incomplete, or “lesser,” for its subject matter or for-hire status as an exploitation of the cheekily trite title song, but for its discordant uncertainty. The story’s conflict, between characters played by a remote Kris Kristofferson and an overheated Ernest Borgnine, is conflated needlessly into a pretentious, symbolic, ideologically incoherent battle between the individual and society that’s ludicrous and desperate in the context of a good-old-boy trucker comedy.
Most of Peckinpah’s films are tonally discordant, of course, rooting around as they do in ultraviolence, coarse comedy, self-pitying drunk bathos, and, most distinctively, in staggeringly intense surveys of primordial terrain in apocalyptic extremis. This discord is obligatory in Convoy, as the violence predominantly represents a weightless act of greatest-hits-style indulgence. At its best, the film finds Peckinpah moving into a new poetry of non-violence, of movement associated with explicit, actualized harmony, but the director doesn’t trust himself, mistaking change of form for impersonal commercial stewardship. Ironically, Peckinpah achieves that very impersonality while attempting to placate himself with flourishes that signal a retreat into previously discovered country.
Image quality varies. Softness subtly abounds in the impressive background landscapes that open the film, and in a few of the busier interior sets, such as a crowded bar that sends the plot in proper motion. The specifics of the trucks are well rendered, however, preserving the film’s fetishizing of the spoilers, hood ornaments, in-joke-laden passenger doors, and assorted other minutiae. Facial details also come through with spectacular cleanness and precision. The sound mix offers a similarly solid, not-quite-great refurbishing that’s alternately vivid and underwhelming. Small diegetic sounds come through well, but this track lacks the body and the big, show-pony oomph that’s really required of such a noisy, rowdy dude-centric movie.
Most of the supplements are quick vignettes that briefly, charmingly elaborate on a minute aspect of the film. Most fun is a piece from Norway that discusses the functional specifics of the truck memorably driven by the Kris Kristofferson character. The audio commentary by film historians Paul Seyor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, and the feature-length documentary, "Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Trucker Movie," are the disc’s big "gets," offering a collective portrait of Convoy as a legendary calamity that somehow became a hit in spite of itself. Peckinpah’s famous demons are well discussed, particularly the drug use, which dulled his gifts for improvisation and left him stranded attempting to fashion a "Sam Peckinpah film" from the script that he correctly deemed to be beneath him. The commentary is most interesting for the participants’ clear dislike of the film under discussion, as well as revelatory for uncovering plot points that barely scan in the film’s shambles of a narrative (such as the motivation for the feud that drives the narrative), though the formal mastery on display in the best sequences is occasionally undervalued. A remarkably sturdy and affectionate package for such a maligned film.
The red-headed stepchild of Sam Peckinpah’s career is accorded an uneven A/V clean-up that’s effectively offset by the surprising smorgasbord of informative extras.