#12 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
The incoherence of late Peckinpah continues with this new effort to find a commercial hit. Based on the popular song and in an effort to replicate the financial success of Smokey and the Bandit, did eventually become financially successful, the most successful of Peckinpah’s career. However, the road was rough, so rough that actual authorship of the film is nearly impossible to assign. Given complete free reign of the production which led to it getting a month behind schedule (so bad that star Kris Kristofferson had to take a break from filming to do a scheduled concert tour) and doubling the budget, Peckinpah turned in a first cut of the film to his producers that was three and a half hours long and, apparently, didn’t even include the ending. He was fired on the spot, and the editor (Graeme Clifford) was told to take the footage and get it down to less than two hours. I’ve read that one of Peckinpah’s biographers (David Weddle) has seen that extended cut and found it a better film. I don’t see how that wouldn’t be possible because the end result is just a mess.
Rubber Duck (Kristofferson) is a trucker heading through Arizona when he finds himself alongside a couple of other truckers, Love Machine (Burt Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye). Talking over their CB radios, they get to know each other and get into a small race, egged on by the local sheriff Lyle (Ernest Borgnine) who pulls them over and then takes bribes from them to not write them tickets. One of my larger problems in the film is Lyle, the corrupt sheriff. I get what he’s supposed to do and be. He’s supposed to be the corrupt application of the law, the big guy squashing the little guy, and the fact that he first enters the story by pulling Rubber Duck over for going over the 55 mph speed limit is emblematic of the fact that Lyle is supposed to be a metaphor for the out of control federal leviathan that was telling the little guy how to run his own business. However, the actual progression of events that lead this small county sheriff to standing on top of a tank to shoot with a full-on automatic, mounted gun at Rubber Duck in the end feels far too thinly described and detailed to make much of any sense. He’s supposed to be this film’s Buford T. Justice, but, as I recall, Justice never got the entire army involved. This is a metaphor taking itself too far.
Anyway, the actual conflict doesn’t really escalate until everyone gets to a trucker diner. There, Rubber Duck meets up with an attractive female photographer whose car has broken down and needs a ride to Texas, Melissa (Ali MacGraw) before Lyle shows up for reasons, Love Machine and Spider Mike mess with him over the CB radio, and then a fight breaks out between the truckers and the sheriff (including a couple of deputies) when Lyle tries to arrest Spider Mike for vagrancy (after having stolen all of his money). So begins the race to the New Mexico border.
The actual race stuff is amusing, and it’s probably the chief joys in the film. There are accidental crashes that get written into the script, including Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) tipping over her eighteen wheeler in an effort to get around a tight turn, and Lyle gives frantic chase, first stealing a hot rod from a couple of grass smoking teens, and eventually crashing into a residential development in grand fashion. There’s a chase through an unpaved section of road and in pretty much straight desert that looks good and represents Peckinpah’s best use of slow motion in the film (as in some other films, I think he just used slow motion because it’s what he did without any real consideration for what it might mean). And then, the convoy grows.
This is where it feels like a good bit of meat was cut out of the film. Why does Rubber Duck’s plight become a huge thing? It’s not like he’s having this race to the state border in hugely public places. He’s going on backroads, and there seem to be real limits on how the CB radios are used in the film, so it’s unclear how the news travels so far and so fast in such a manner as to incite some kind of rebellion.
Despite the lack of sense behind the mechanics of it, where the film gets the most interesting intellectually is when the convoy actually forms. As it passes deeper into New Mexico, the governor of the state sends a representative to interview the driving truckers, and as he goes down the line on the back of his little flatbed, he gets a wide variety of explanations from personal loyalty to Rubber Duck to praising of Jesus to long, rambling talks about the government. There’s no cohesiveness to the convoy in terms of identifiable ideology. It’s just a hodgepodge of the little people who find common cause in something. It points to something really interesting about the isolated feeling that the modern world can create in people, but the film isn’t really that interested in it beyond this scene.
The governor (Seymour Cassel) offers them a field to rest at for the night, and he comes to pay a visit. It’s obvious from the moment he gets there that he’s only there to turn the event to his political advantage (there’s a line about him soon to be running for Senate), and I was reminded of the nominee in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab in Taxi Driver, someone completely removed from the problems at the bottom of society. It’s an interesting idea, but, once again, the movie isn’t really concerned with it because Spider Mike broke off from the convoy to go home and see his wife who is 9 months pregnant, and he got arrested for reasons, beaten up, and Lyle catches up. Rubber Duck has got to get to him to help, and a few others end up following.
Then we get what is probably the most incoherent use of violence that Peckinpah ever put to film. Not from a technical perspective, it’s easy to see what’s going on, but from a thematic one. Nearly a dozen trucks show up to the small Texas town where Spider Mike is being held in the prison, and the trucks destroy the entire town. In a movie nominally about the big guy in government unfairly targeting the small guy on the road, having the small guy on the road heedless and needless destroy a series of small businesses is just off. Like, way off. It’s wrong, and I don’t think Peckinpah cared (assuming he actually directed it, James Coburn was second unit director, hired to get his DGA card, and directed a lot of the film when Peckinpah was indisposed, which was reportedly a lot).
There’s a final showdown on a bridge and an explosion in an escalation of violence that doesn’t make nearly as much sense as it should, and then a funeral, and then we discover that a big sacrifice wasn’t actually a sacrifice and nothing matters.
So, I can’t hate this movie. There are too many interesting little bits here and there, but the story has been obviously cut down to the bone to the point where we just have enough to get use from one plot point to the next. Ali MacGraw’s scenes were apparently cut down heavily, so her presence ends up feeling threadbare. Kristofferson is his normal charming self, carrying as much of the film on his shoulders as he can, and the supporting cast is amusing, especially Burt Young. Ernest Borgnine does what he can, but he’s a far cry from his wonderful Marty performance.
As to authorship, the script is credited to B.W.L. Norton, but Peckinpah heavily rewrote it as soon as he was hired. He was able to film everything he wanted, but the edit was completely taken away from him. So, who’s movie is this? It feels like no one’s, to be honest. There’s evidence of the fun adventure Norton wanted to write, the familiar themes that Peckinpah inserted along with his directing style, and then the ruthless culling of footage by the editor to hit a proscribed running time. Would this film feel more cohesive in a longer cut? Considering the lack of cohesion in Cross of Iron, I kind of doubt it, but there would probably have been more meat on the narrative bones to chew. As it stands, it ends up being a Smokey and the Bandit follower without the real sense of fun because there’s too much else going on, and that other stuff never really engages, feeling more frustrating than anything else.
It simply doesn’t work. Its contemporary popularity somewhat escapes me.