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teaser Convoy (1978)

Critically maligned upon its initial release, Sam Peckinpah's Convoy (1978) is still not afforded much respect by most of the director's fans and supporters. Many have cited Peckinpah's reckless behavior and undisciplined production methods as being one of the main factors for the film's skyrocketing costs. Certainly the director's struggle with various forms of addiction (booze, cocaine, marijuana) had taken its toll, not only on his state of mind, but also on his relationships with friends and colleagues, both on and off the set. Others have put the blame on the screenplay, which was based on a popular country and western tune, C.W. McCall's Convoy. In fact, many of Peckinpah's associates were surprised to learn that the maverick director of such influential films as Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) would accept such a flimsy premise for his major Hollywood production.

Involved in one of the many behind-the-scenes conflicts was Steve McQueen who showed up on the set to voice a major complaint about his wife, Ali MacGraw. Reportedly McQueen said to Peckinpah, "What the hell do you think you're doing, Sam, asking my wife to do a movie?" (The couple had once appeared in Peckinpah's The Getaway, 1972). The director replied, "Steve, she's the main ingredient that will make this film legitimate." The actor's response was, "Yeah, well you're disrupting my home life." At the time, the McQueen-MacGraw marriage was in trouble and McQueen dropped in unannounced on the Convoy set to see if the rumors were true about his wife was having an affair with a crewmember. But there were worse problems. According to Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah by Marshall Fine, "Peckinpah spent a week and a half filming a slapstick fight that was scheduled for three days. That kind of delay put the film over budget and behind schedule immediately. Gary Combs, who had moved up from stuntman to stunt coordinator for this picture, says "The production manager scheduled it for three days: two fights in the same room with eleven people. On a normal film, that would be about right. A week and a half later, we were still trying to get it done."

The Pocket Essential Sam Peckinpah by Richard Luck reported that "on the day Convoy wrapped, Sam Peckinpah commented: "I haven't done one good day's work on this whole picture." What Sam had done was expose over 800,000 feet of film. To put this in context, he shot only 300,000 feet while making The Wild Bunch. Even working with old friend Garth Craven, Sam couldn't edit the film down below three-and-a-half hours long. Aware that the studio wouldn't possibly release a film of that length, Sam Peckinpah did something he'd never done before: he allowed the producers to take the film away from him. Eventually released in June 1978, Convoy went on to gross $46.5 million in the US, making it Sam's biggest box-office hit."

But in spite of troubles on the set, overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics, and the indifferent treatment it receives from Peckinpah biographers and film students today, Convoy excels in spectacular stunt driving sequences. With a standard for auto mayhem set by such preceding films as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), and Smokey and the Bandit (1977), audiences were expecting to see much more than just a few fender benders shot in front of a back projection screen for this road movie. Car stunts in the late 60s and 70s often put audiences in the driver's seat, and Convoy delivers in that respect. For example, when corrupt sheriff Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) pursues "Rubber Duck" (Kris Kristofferson), the lead trucker, in an appropriated muscle car, he gets bumped off the road, flies off an embankment, hurtles through a billboard, smashes through the top of a barn, and finally crashes right side up, 165 feet away. The stunt was a marvel, and it was performed by Borgnine's frequent stunt double and master driver, Bob Herron.

A veteran supporting player and former racecar driver, Bob Herron doubled not only for Borgnine but also for Tony Curtis for many years. He appeared in a number of films, like Spartacus (1960), The Great Race (1965), Diamonds are Forever (1971), and Earthquake (1974), before making his legendary jump in Convoy, a stunt that could have easily been his last. Because Herron was given a late cue to begin his scene, he had to drive the car faster than he planned - upwards of 80 plus miles an hour - in order to catch up to the truck right at the mark where it bumps Herron off the road. As a result, Herron seriously overshot his expected landing. But Peckinpah was happy with the take. In fact, the director had instructed Herron to go as far as he wanted, but not to land too short, otherwise the shot would have been ruined.

After Herron performed the jump, the crew could tell he was a bit dazed, since he asked them when they were going to shoot the stunt! Yet, despite suffering a concussion and a few minor separations, Herron was allowed to stay and perform a few more stunts on Convoy after his recovery. One reason Herron's car leap was so successful was due in large part to his specially rigged car. It was fitted with a thousand pounds of extra weight in the trunk, so that the car would not nosedive once it was airborne, a particularly dangerous way to land a car, especially for the driver. The car was also designed with a steel cage and extra strength seat belt to keep Herron secure. Herron's stuntman expertise was also crucial. He knew to approach the jump without hesitation, a state of mind that stuntmen adopt in order to perform the shot successfully and to walk away with their bodies intact. Herron also knew enough to keep his head down, so he wouldn't snap his neck upon landing. And finally, he knew that once he was airborne, he was to keep his eyes closed and his hands on the steering wheel, awaiting that big 'thump.'

The stunts and the cinematography are what make Convoy distinctive and though few reviewers praised these aspects, a few influential critics took notice like the late Pauline Kael who described Convoy as "a happy-go-lucky ode to the truckers on the roads, a sunny, enjoyable picture....The whole movie is a prankish road's so beautiful that often you don't want the camera to move - you want to hold on to what you see."Producer: Robert M. Sherman
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Bill L. Norton
Production Design: Fernando Carrere
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Costume Design: Carol James
Film Editing: Graeme Clifford, Garth Craven, John Wright
Original Music: Chip Davis
Stunts: Jophery C. Brown, James H. Burk, Gary Combs, Jadie David, Jerry Gatlin, Alan Gibbs, Bob Herron and many others.
Principal Cast: Kris Kristofferson (Rubber Duck), Ali MacGraw (Melissa), Ernest Borgnine (Lyle Wallace), Burt Young (Pig Pen), Madge Sinclair (Widow Woman), Franklyn Ajaye (Spider Mike), Seymour Cassel (Governor Haskins), Cassie Yates (Violet), Brian Davies (Chuck Arnoldi).C-110m.

by Scott McGee

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