The Sam Peckinpah movie (that wasn’t) based on the hit song “Convoy” by an artist who was created as part of an advertising campaign
by Marshall Bowden
The other evening Elizabeth & I were searching for a movie to watch, and we cast our net out upon the offerings from Paramount Plus. After adding a few Vincent Price movies and a few other vintage goodies to our list, we came across Convoy, a 1978 trucker/CB picture (I know, but it was the seventies) based on a novelty song by C.W. McCall. I’m a fan of the outlaw/bootlegger vs. law enforcement movie that was, at its most commercial, the purview of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. One major element of these movies are the elaborate chase scenes with lots of driving stunt work done before there was such a thing as CGI. So I was psyched to see Convoy on the list. Not only did it look like a great fun time, but it had the added cache of being based on a song, a novelty song that I remember singing along with on the radio as the country went through its bicentennial. Good times.
We watched the movie trailer, which was filled with the song and lots of action shots of trucks on highways and some bar room fight action and a cop car crashing through a building and man, I was psyched to watch this movie right now…and then it happened. The words “Directed by Sam Peckinpah” appeared on the screen. I whirled like a halfwit dervish in delight. I had completely forgotten that this hot mess of a movie was directed by none other than the director of such classic films as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. So we watched the movie right then and there.
Within the first half hour I realized that this movie was way, way better than it needed to be. It also made good on the promise of filling in the song in such a way that could support a full length feature film. I mean, it blew away all those Smokey and the Bandit fiascoes and even Gator. Not because it was supposed to be better. No. The plot and the writing aren’t any better than those films’ writing, nor are the characters. For the most part they are the caricatures you’d expect: loner-turned-leader Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson), sexy city gal on assignment covering the trucker life (Ali McGraw), and racist, foul-mouthed sheriff (Ernest Borgnine) making life hell for our hero and his gang. But even though they aren’t written all that well, they are portrayed by actors and actresses who are better than the material they are given.
And Sam Peckinpah, a man in his late fifties who would not live to see sixty, had a lot of confidence in his actors and the emotional impact of the story he wanted to tell as well as his own filmmaking skill. A functioning alcoholic for most of his adult life, Peckinpah was supposed to be off the sauce during the making of Convoy–one New York Times piece has him talk about it–but he had relapses frequently, and he had also started using cocaine on a previous film, reportedly introduced to it by James Caan. By all accounts he was a miserable SOB on the set. Not many of the crew had anything good to say about their experiences on the movie and many of them quit along the way. Some days he remained in his trailer, wasted and ornery, and the day’s shoot would be overseen by actor James Coburn, a friend of Sam’s who had been hired as a second unit director.
Whatever Peckinpah filmed he filmed in such a way as to show its heroic qualities. His westerns directly descended from the work of John Ford and John Huston, depicting a world that was grittier and less honorable than the frontier myths that most Americans had been fed. His films were mostly about individuals attempting to cope with a mad, chaotic world. Kris Kristofferson’s Rubber Duck is not unlike the character Humphrey Bogart portrayed in more than one film–wanting to be left alone to carve out his own existence in an unfriendly universe, but dragged into heroic action by his humanity.
Convoy is a love letter to America in many ways, thanks in large part to the cinematography of Harry Stradling, Jr. The shots of trucks driving the highways and deserts of New Mexico are stunning, with the same kind of big skies and open roads that audiences are used to seeing in westerns. In one memorable sequence the convoy takes a back road that is little more than a trail, and the shots of trucks driving over the soft dirt, leaving cop cars in the literal dust, are like an eighteen wheeler ballet. Eventually the trucks dissolve into each other and, as daylight turns to dusk, their headlights merge with the moon in an eerie display of mechanized beauty.
Just like the westerns of old, Convoy is a mythical construct, a look at an America that receded into the mists of the distant past like Avalon. Some would argue that it truly never existed. Sam Peckinpah created a real sense of camaraderie around the truckers by encouraging actors to ad lib lines and to do what they thought their characters would actually do rather than slavishly devoting themselves to the script. He reportedly rewrote parts and it was his idea to include two black truckers, portrayed by Madge Sinclair and Franklin Ajaye, in the film. Ajaye’s character, Spider Mike, is a main character, one of Rubber Duck’s two main sidekicks (the other is portrayed by Burt Young, who distinguished himself as Rocky Balboa’s brother in law). When Spider Mike leaves the convoy to return home for the birth of his first child, his wife in the hospital, Rubber Duck comments ‘That’s some scary country for a black trucker.’ Predictably, Mike is picked up by the racist sheriff and beaten before being tossed into jail. What that shows, really clearly, is that many white Americans understood, as far back as 1978, that police, especially corrupt ones in rural areas, posed a real threat to the lives of any black people who crossed their paths.
In the end Peckinpah turned in a cut that was over three hours long, and the studio grew nervous, fired him, and had the film recut to 103 minutes. Peckinpah disowned the film as it was released; ironically, it was the most commercially successful of his career, even though it wasn’t released until June of 1978, well after the CB craze had abated and a full three years after the song that had inspired it ascended the charts. That song, by C.W. McCall, was in itself a construct.
In 1973, the gas crisis caused the Federal government to impose a 55mph speed limit. That made truckers’ jobs more difficult, and they used CB radio to communicate about speed traps and route conditions to help them avoid the limit and law enforcement. They also gave each other tips about good stops for food, rest stops, and gas. The FCC also dropped its CB licensing requirement, making them available to everyone. Suddenly everyone you knew had a CB, and America’s lingo became peppered with words and phrases like ‘Smokey’ and ‘put the hammer down.’
The single “Convoy” was released in 1975 and soon became a hit on AM radio stations across the country. But its singer, C.W. McCall, didn’t actually exist. He was a character invented by advertising man for Metz Baking Company’s Old Home Bread, and was portrayed in the commercials by a Dallas actor. Fries wrote a song for one of the commercials, “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café.” The song was so popular that Fries and his songwriting partner Chip Davis (who went on to form the group Manheim Steamroller) wrote more songs and recorded their first album, Wolf Creek Pass, with a bunch of studio musicians. Fries again did the vocals and became C.W. McCall for their live and television performances. The second album, Black Bear Road, was released nine months later and included the song “Convoy” which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in January 1976.
Fries and Davies teamed up to write two more albums of C.W. McCall material. Wilderness, released in 1976 takes as its theme nature, and even has some pretty environmentalist lyrics, making it one of their best albums, though it also includes the popular “Crispy Critters” in which some hippies are run out of town by law enforcement. “Rubber Duck,” released the same year, features more songs around the subject of truck driving. There were two albums after that, but only a couple of songs by Fries and Davies, with most being cover versions of songs like “Roses for Mama” and “The Battle of New Orleans.” The final album, 1979’s C.W. McCall & Co., does feature a cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” as well as “Silver Cloud Breakdown,” a number composed by Davies and included in the film Convoy (though not on the original soundtrack album). That soundtrack is worth tracking down if you want to year the version of “Convoy” that McCall recorded–with some newer, grittier lyrics–specifically for the film.
Even though the CB fad abated in a couple of years, as fads do, it left behind cultural artifacts that are slightly more than a blip on the radar of pop culture history. Among those artifacts, C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” and the film that it inspired have managed to claim a place for themselves that is remarkable for art that we generally consider to be disposable.