Andrew Sarris

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804

Sam Peckinpah's Convoy is not merely a bad movie but a terrible movie. Anyone can make a bad movie—only a misguided talent can manage to be terrible. And there is visible talent, even in Convoy—particularly when men and machines are set into motion and smashed with an exquisite exuberance, as if visible matter were being transported to a realm beyond good and evil for the eternal edification of the naked eye.

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But, then, the cardboard characterizations and comic-strip contrivances bring Convoy back down to earth with all the other infantile junk flicks of the late '70s. There is now no doubt that its director is scrambling for survival, taking whatever the traffic will bear. Never before has a Peckinpah film been so devoid of death and pain and even stress….

[Never before] has Peckinpah seemed so nakedly Russian as a visual rhetorician. This is where the controversy may arise. Even his erstwhile admirers may be forced to admit that Convoy is lacking in content above the moronic level. But the "look" and "rhythm" of the film are something else again. Are we back in the magically auteurist regions of Raoul Walsh and Samuel Fuller, regions in which visual forms allegedly transcended genre conventions? I think not. The films of Walsh and Fuller and all the other controversial "action" or "genre" directors stand or fall on the integration of style and subject matter. The rationale for Peckinpah was quite different. His critical myth was that of the rebel who undertook genre assignments only to subvert them. From his earliest writing-directing jobs on Gunsmoke, The Westerner, and The Rifleman, one sensed an irony and a portentousness that seemed to denote a deep-seated disgruntlement with the false fictions of an era and an area Peckinpah deemed his own domain. His roots were in the West, and he felt it was his job to set the record straight—or at least make it more believable—for the more civilized sensibilities back East….

[In 1962] Peckinpah's second film—Ride the High Country—was released to general indifference in the United States but wild enthusiasm in England and France. Word of European reaction filtered back to the States, and Peckinpah became an instant cult figure. I still consider Ride the High Country his supreme masterpiece, and never more so than in the context of Convoy….

From Major Dundee on I never felt that Peckinpah was an artist with a compulsion to tell stories but rather an artist for whom stories were merely a pretext for the creation of images. Hence, the excessive use of slow motion tends to delay the narrative, as if Peckinpah would never be really content until he could stop the motion altogether, so his composition could be frozen with all its beauty intact, forever secure from the narrative's process of decomposition. Even his Russian-montage mannerisms advance the dramatic action less often than they restate it….

In the '70s Peckinpah's career has zigzagged from the self-conscious pacifism of The Ballad of Cable Hogue, to the vicious violence of Straw Dogs, to the relatively conventional caper mechanics of The Getaway to the bloody rock-audience-oriented balladry of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, to the trashymystic-Mexican-modern nihilism of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, to the martial-arts megalomania—with C.I.A. trappings—of The Killer Elite, to the simpleminded worship of the Wehrmacht in Cross of Iron down to the pits with Convoy.

It would seem that Peckinpah can no longer bend the medium to his will but can only embellish the banalities of the current market. One of his problems is that no one makes Westerns anymore, and, that, therefore, the Western is not a genre he can subvert, since it is extinct anyway. The frisson of auto cars invading the frontier landscape (in The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue) is no longer available to him as an artistic strategy. Hence, he has attempted in Convoy to transform the truckers into the chivalric cowboy of old. At one point he photographs the trucks lining up side by side like a cavalry formation about to charge the enemy. But the transposed effect does not pack any emotional wallop…. There is not enough distance between them and us for Peckinpah to wax romantic over their mythical exploits. And they certainly do not qualify as spokesmen for our dissent and disillusion. By trying to turn one more pressure group in our midst into a noble order of heroes, Peckinpah sinks to the grotesque of Russ Meyer…. As it turns out, Peckinpah needed the Western for his art to flourish more than the Western ever needed him.

Andrew Sarris, "Convoyeur" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 29, July 17, 1978, p. 39.

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