Convoy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) who, in pursuance of a feud with Sheriff Lyle (Ernest Borgnine), unites scores of his fellow truck-drivers via Citizens Band radio into a gigantic mile-long convoy which, powered by pent-up frustrations and resentments as much as by diesel fuel, rolls irresistibly along the Arizona highways toward the freedom of the Mexican border. (From Kino’s official synopsis)
Despite being well-received and popular when released, Convoy is probably the least essential film in Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre. That said, its negative qualities tend to lie outside the scope of what makes a good Sam Peckinpah film or even a Sam Peckinpah movie at all. As such, it’s difficult to qualify it as the director’s worst movie, simply a bad movie Peckinpah happened to be involved with. At any rate, the harrowing story behind the making of Convoy is infinitely more interesting in regards to the director’s work than the final product. The short version is that Peckinpah was in dire straits as the ‘70s drew to a close. He hadn’t had anything resembling a hit since The Getaway in 1972 and, when Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) – a particularly personal project – was ravaged by critics and audiences, he grudgingly retreated to for-hire gigs, including a spy thriller, Killer Elite (1975), and a war film, Cross of Iron (1975). Meanwhile, he was falling deeper into depression, paranoia, alcoholism, and drug addiction, and was soon considered unbankable and even uninsurable by most major studios.
In tandem to Peckinpah’s downward spiral, dopey road comedies and trucker thrillers, like Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Don Hulette’s Breaker! Breaker! (also 1977), became en vogue. A desperate Peckinpah was brought onto a cash-in project called Convoy, based on C. W. McCall’s country-pop smash hit song of the same name. There’s almost no way to parallel this combination in modern terms. First, you’d have to have a contemporary counterpart to Peckinpah, which really doesn’t exist. Then you’d need that counterpart to make a trendy genre film that was completely out of character, yet, that trend would need to be incredibly short-lived, so something like superhero movies and found-footage horror wouldn’t apply. On top of that, the plot would have to be based on a novelty song. Perhaps if Lars Von Trier had directed a cheerleader movie to cash-in on Bring it On that was inspired by the lyrics to the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” you’d have something similar to the surreal existence of Convoy.
Not surprisingly, Convoy was a disaster. Peckinpah and the cast that had joined the picture specifically to work with him didn’t like B. W. L. Norton’s script and struggled to find conceptual relevance. The director went to war with producer Robert M. Sherman and continued to fall apart physically and mentally. Logistics were impossible, stunts almost turned deadly, and everyone wanted to quit, but the financing was already in place, so production continued, sometimes without Peckinpah on set. The final film was edited without the director’s input and is a cobbled mess with no thematic center that just barely rises above the basement-level expectations of the trucker subgenre. The plot is a bore, the pacing is sluggish, and the pro-union/anti-authoritative message is fumbled in the dumb comedy and broad characterizations. The only saving grace is Peckinpah’s eye for camera placement and editing action, though even his patented slow-motion seems awkward and out of place.
Convoy has seen other Blu-ray releases in other regions, but this is its US HD debut. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is acceptable, verging on very good, and probably matches any other disc that used MGM/UA’s original HD scan. The good news is that the image is tight, the patterns are clean, the edges are sharp, and the colors are natural and punchy. Black levels are rich without pooling or crushing (outside of some of the darkest interiors) and contrast levels appear accurate. On the other hand, some images show signs of substantial DNR tinkering. These have been shorn of natural grain and are left with smudgy shapes (especially in the backgrounds), as well as some notable edge haloes. The scenes that have been left grainy are pretty heavy with the stuff, especially the wide-angle images of the open road. Print damage is minor, following a few chunky bits during the opening credits.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack also meets expectations. It’s a bit surprising that the producers didn’t want a stereo mix for the original release, given the budget, scope of action, and pop music-heavy soundtrack, but the single track treatment doesn’t flatten all the truck engines, gun shots, explosions, or music. It’s not the deepest set mix, of course, but the structure is clear and there are very few distorted elements. Dialogue is clean and relatively consistent (there are a couple of muffled bits). Chip Davis’ twangy country score and the additional songs (including the title track) could’ve made use of the stereo spread, I suppose, but it all has surprising bass support.
Commentary with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman – This chatty group commentary covers the tumultuous production and takes a very honest approach to criticizing the film’s many, many faults. Fans of the film might find the analysis unnecessarily harsh (all three commentators take an exclusively negative slant), but the discussion is rarely insulting.
Passion & Poetry: Sam's Trucker Movie (73:00, SD) – This behind-the-scenes documentary, directed by Mike Siegel (as part of a longer documentary on the director’s career), isn’t the best of its kind, but admirably covers the fascinating subject matter, complete with interviews with all the key players. It is, ultimately, a better movie than Convoy and I almost recommend that new viewers watch it first to fully understand how such a great filmmaker could make such a milquetoast product.
Trailer, TV spots, radio spots, and production stills
Promoting Convoy featurette (5:40, SD) – Poster campaign comparisons
Three ‘lost’ scenes (5:50, HD) – Text descriptions and stills
In-jokes, Friends & Cameos (6:00, SD)
Trucker Notes from Norway (3:10, SD) – An interview with a Norwegian superfan