Bombast: Truck Yeah
Mad Max: Fury Road
“Mad” Max Rockatansky is best known for his souped-up black 1974 Ford Falcon XB coupe, totaled early on in Mad Max: Fury Road, but we know for a fact that he has his Class A CDLs, or the Australian equivalent thereof. In the all-chase last act of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Max takes the wheel of a Mack R-600 CoolPower truck pulling a decoy tank trailer, while in Fury Road he switches off with Charlize Theron driving a juggernaut called the War Rig. In a piece for Bloomberg Business, Fury Road production designer Colin Gibson discussed the fleet which he assembled (and reassembled) for the film, and described the War Rig thusly: “[A] Czechoslovakian Tatra and Chevy Fleetmaster fused together into a six-wheel-drive 18-wheeler powered with twin V8 engines.” More than any action film in recent memory, Fury Road explores the dramatic and kinetic possibilities of a big rig haulin’ ass with a hostile army at its back door. And while its setting is pure post-apocalyptic sci-fi, its outlaw spirit and hardware align it to another genre: the trucker movie.
The first Mad Max appeared in December of 1979, at the end of a decade which might be said to constitute the golden age of the truck flick. Only a couple of weeks ago, one of the archetypal works of this car chase subgenre, Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (78), appeared on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Convoy grows into mythic dimensions from humble beginnings. Semi-legendary driver Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and a couple of buddies, “Spider Mike” (Franklyn Ajaye) and “Love Machine” (Burt Young—everybody else calls him “Pig Pen”) get in a signature slo-mo donnybrook with local-yokel Arizona Sheriff “Cottonmouth” Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) and his deputies at a roadside diner, then gouge on it for the New Mexico state line and, so they think, safety. Instead, Cottonmouth keeps in hot pursuit with the help of local, state, and national authorities, and “Rubber Duck” finds himself leading a growing army of the disenchanted—the “convoy” of the title, a mobilized political force on par with the Whiskey Rebellion, or at least the Bonus Army. Although Convoy is widely dismissed even by (or perhaps especially by) Peckinpah aficionados—the shoot takes up five of the 578 pages of David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography “If They Move… Kill ‘Em!”, and these are mostly concerned with Peckinpah’s financial problems (which caused him to take the assignment) and cocaine (which, in Weddle’s opinion, caused him to botch it)—it’s a hypnotically watchable movie, even rather touching in its utopian democratic fantasy.
The convoy, seen in Peckinpah’s film snaking across the landscape from gorgeous helicopter vantages, is described in the 1975 hit song of the same name by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis on which the film is based, a newly-recorded version of which gets sampled throughout the movie: “A thousand screamin’ trucks / An’ eleven long-haired Friends a’ Jesus / In a chartreuse micra-bus.” McCall and Davis’s “Convoy” provided the Citizens Band (CB) radio handles for the film’s dramatis personae, as well as its basic premise, and the song, like the film, is generously dappled with colorful CB slang: “Mercy sakes alive,” “Huntin’ bear,” “What’s your 20?” and so on. “Convoy” was hardly the first or last time that the trucker, and his patois, would be mined as material for a country performer—Sprechgesang artist Red Sovine, to take one example, made a career out of it. The affiliation between the long-haul trucking industry and country music—or, to be historically correct, Country & Western or hillbilly music—is as old as both. The truck country playlist begins with Cliff Bruner and His Boys’ 1939 recording of “Truck Driver’s Blues,” and carries on through Art Gibson’s “I’m a Truck Drivin’ Man,” Ted Daffan’s “Truck Driving Man,” the career output of Dave Dudley (“Six Days on the Road,” “Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun,” “Me and Ol’ C.B.”), Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On,” theme to the NBC series (74-76) of the same name, the entirety of the Every Which Way But Loose (78) soundtrack, including the Eddie Rabbitt title track, until we arrive at the video for Florida Georgia Line’s “This is How We Roll,” in which the bro-country ensemble throws a rager in the back of a moving semi.* Convoy’s Kristofferson had made his reputation in Nashville as a songwriter and performer before he ever set foot on a film set, as had Jerry Reed, who co-starred in Smokey and the Bandit (77), warbled the theme “East Bound and Down,” and drove the Peterbilt 379 full of contraband Coors while Burt Reynolds’s Bandit ran “blocker” for him in a souped-up TransAm. The tradition of casting country performers in trucking movies would continue all the way to Randy Travis in Black Dog (98)—part of a mini-cycle of truck-related thrillers at the fin-de-millennium along with Breakdown (97) and Joy Ride (01), itself heavily-indebted to Steven Spielberg’s Duel (71)—but I am getting ahead of myself.
Before you can have a trucking genre you must first, of course, have a trucking industry. It started in the years after World War I and spread as fast as paved roads, though it didn’t immediately capture the public imagination. Perhaps the archetypal “truck” image of the Depression years—the converted 1926 Hudson “Super Six” hauling all of the California-bound Joad family’s worldly belongings in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (40)—was one that denoted blight rather than commerce. That getting to California was only half the battle was a well-known fact to Albert Isaac Bezzerides, aka A.I. or “Buzz,” who’d emigrated from the Ottoman Empire to the Sunshine State with his family as a child, and worked with his father driving a truck in the San Joaquin Valley. If there is a single original auteur of the American trucking film, it is certainly Bezzerides, and its first masterpiece is Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night, released by Warner Brothers in the summer of 1940, and based on Bezzerides’s 1938 novel The Long Haul. The film, starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers and beleaguered independent truckers, drew on Bezzerides direct experience of cutthroat practices within the industry. During the 1930s, most industrial manufacturers of any size owned their own trucks and employed their own drivers, leaving only piecemeal work for agricultural concerns to independent drivers, hauling produce and livestock to market, forced to accept work on impossible, physically ruinous terms in order to keep a competitive edge, and getting ripped off from every angle. The Long Haul was Bezzerides’s ticket into the screenwriting racket, and he would later adapt another of his trucking novels, 1949’s Thieves’ Market into the screenplay for Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway, released the same year. “They were based on things I’d seen with my father or on my own,” Bezzerides said of his novels. “I worked with my father, trucking, going to the market to buy produce. There was corruption and they’d try to screw you. When he was selling grapes, the packing house would screw him on the price and then sell to New York for an expensive price. When I was trucking I wouldn’t allow it. A guy tried to rob me in such a blatant way I picked up a two-by-four and I was going to kill him.”
The working-class Bezzerides wrote in a vein that in the Thirties was still called “proletariat literature,” and while he continued to turn out pages uninterrupted through the 1950s, others in Hollywood who’d thrown around the p-word would be done in by their former (or present) political affiliations. Dassin, a former member of the Communist Party USA, received the news that he’d been blacklisted while shooting Night in the City (50) in London, a city that, along with Paris, would become one of the primary destinations for political exiles from the movie colony. Cy Endfield, who’d only just begun to establish himself as a director of noir thrillers, moved to England after his name was named in 1951 and got right back to work, at first using such professional aliases as Charles de Lautour, Charles de la Tour, Hugh Raker, and C. Raker Endfield. It was under the last sobriquet that he produced Hell Drivers (57), one of the finest films produced in England that decade, and perhaps the high point of Endfield’s six-film collaboration with star Stanley Baker, which also produced Zulu (64). Baker stars as a lorry driver newly employed by Hawlett’s Trucking Company to haul gravel to and fro in endlessly repetitive runs, pressed to work at suicidal speed thanks to a vicious competition encouraged by management.
While the trucker film is thought of as an exclusively American phenomenon, there is an alternate, non-Hollywood tradition of which Hell Drivers is representative. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s South American expedition Wages of Fear (53) is the most famous of these films, more recently eclipsed in reputation by William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, which was not the first remake. New Yorkers would be advised to take advantage of a forthcoming opportunity to visit Anthology Film Archives for screenings of Hugo Fregonese’s Mexico-shot Blowing Wild, a film which, released less than half a year after Clouzot’s, lifts its nitroglycerine courier plot intact. (The script is credited to quick draw wheeler-dealer huckster Philip Yordan and, to paraphrase a line from The Mother and the Whore: “Like all imitations, it’s better than the original.”) Certainly the most idiosyncratic trucker movie of all time is Marguerite Duras’s Le Camion (77), which consists of the authoress sitting down with Gerard Depardieu to read him the script of a movie involving an older, disillusioned female hitchhiker who catches a lift from a male truck driver who happens to be a member of the Communist Party. Her reading is periodically interrupted by cutaways to long, sustained shots of a truck trundling along the highway in some desolate, mizzling Parisian suburb, shots which never correspond to the narrative that’s being described. For Duras, as for Endfield, A.I. Bezzerides, or C.W. McCall and Chip Davis, the truck driver is the quintessential proletariat or workin’ man, but Duras holds out little hope for his redemption. Here is how her essay on Le Camion, collected in the City Lights Books volume Duras by Duras, begins:
“It is not worth the trouble to create a cinema of socialist hope for ourselves. Or capitalist hope. No longer worth the trouble to make films about justice to come—social, fiscal, or any other kind. About work. About merit. About women. About young people. About Portuguese. The citizens of Mali. Intellectuals. The Senegalese. No longer worth it to create a cinema about fear. Or revolution. About the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberty. About your bugaboos. About love. It’s no longer worth it.”
Luckily nobody told this to Hal Needham, whose Smokey and the Bandit had its tepidly received world premiere at Radio City Music Hall, just a week before Le Camion faced hisses at Cannes! Bandit eventually made out like one at the box office, inspiring EMI Films to shell out for the rights to Convoy. The trucker movie had been powering up for several years already: Movin’ On, starring Claude Akins and Frank Converse as long-haul-driving partners Sonny Pruitt and Will Chandler, premiered on May 8, 1974, and ran for a total of 46 episodes. The series was, perhaps, before its time, though Akins would have a chance to get back behind the wheel, this time on the other side of the law, playing Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo on the tail of Billie Joe McKay (Greg Evigan) in NBC’s B.J. and the Bear (78-81), as well as enjoy his own spinoff The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (79-81). Though “bear” is CB slang for “cop,” in this particular instance the Bear referred to was McKay’s pet chimpanzee—series creator Glen A. Larson, an intellectual property crook of Yordan-esque proportions, was somewhat infamous for modeling shows after the latest blockbusters, had been inspired by the runaway success of Every Which Way But Loose, in which trucker and bare-knuckle brawler Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) traverses the highways and honky-tonks of the San Fernando Valley with his orangutan, Clyde. (Every Which Way But Loose must be considered an enormously influential film, for it is also impossible to imagine 1987’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle Over the Top—another film about a long-haul trucker with a sideline in competitive bloodsport—without it.) I would stop to discuss less-celebrated items like early Chuck Norris vehicle Breaker! Breaker! (77) or feminist permutation Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers (79), but I’m already behind schedule.
White Line Fever
The brief heyday of the trucker movie and so-called “CB craze” was bracketed by two identifiable historical events. The first was the 1973 oil crisis; the second, the Motor Carrier Regulatory Reform and Modernization Act, a huge step towards the deregulation of the trucking industry which was signed into law by President Carter on June 1, 1980. (Very broadly speaking one can track a Rightward shift in the trucker movie, as the protest shifts from a call for more regulation in the Forties and Fifties films of Bezzerides and Endfield to a call for deregulation in the Seventies.) The ’73 oil crisis resulted in the passage of the National Maximum Speed Law, setting the nationwide speed limit at 55 miles-per-hour, and intensifying an already-existent culture of lawbreaking connivance among truckers, who took on the aspect of outlaw heroes using CB argot to keep one step ahead of the bears. An anti-authoritarian streak animates the best of the trucker movies: The Bandit’s rebellion is of the just-for-kicks, “Whaddya got?” variety, while in Convoy, Rubber Duck emerges as a populist hero, an unofficial spokesman for the truckers who suddenly finds himself called to articulate a platform, and no sooner has this happened than Seymour Cassel’s slickster New Mexico Governor is sidling up to him. (One scene has the Governor’s press representative making his way down the convoy, hearing out a list of the drivers’ grievances, which range from the speed limit to Vietnam to Watergate to “We’re sick and tired of beatin’ our eyeballs coast-to-coast and then havin’ the damn smokies lift us out for our green stamps.”) The greatest of all trucker films, Jonathan Kaplan’s White Line Fever (75), ends with independent Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent) barreling his Ford WT9000, nicknamed “The Blue Mule,” right at the headquarters of the organized crime-backed corporation who’ve been muscling in on him and his kin.
The reference to Paul Bunyan’s ox was no coincidence, for the trucker movie quite self-consciously placed itself within the chronology of American folklore, a convoy of tall tales leading back to the dawn of our bumptious nation. Smokey and the Bandit, for example, begins with Reed crooning a sit-right-down-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-tale invitation: “You heard ‘bout the legend of Jesse James / And John Henry, just to mention some names / Well, there’s a truck-drivin’ legend in the South today / A man called Bandit from Atlanta, G.A.” The back-cover copy on my Convoy Blu-ray is quite to-the-point on another connection: “When the Western film, for many decades the staple of the American cinema, suffered a decline in the Seventies, a new sub-species helped fill the void—the trucking epic.” Indeed, the basic template of the truck movie—distrust of social contracts, rugged self-reliance, and a temporary banding together against hostile outside forces—can all be found in John Ford’s Stagecoach (39). (Ten years before They Drive By Night, Raoul Walsh had forged West with wagon master John Wayne in The Big Trail.) The image of a stagecoach even graces the side of the Bandit’s truck trailer, although the symbolism is somewhat muddled—the Bandit’s avatar is the highwayman in black holding up the stage. Along with those other sublimations of the Western which emerged at the end of the Sixties—the motorcycle/hot-rod flick and the vigilante film—the trucker movie became a favored forum in which to discuss freedom and authority, the individual and society.
No matter how we suppress the Western, it keeps boomeranging back, popping up in the oddest of places—like Western Australia. George Miller, for his part, has been known to repeat an assertion that he credits to French viewers, calling the first Mad Max a “western on wheels.” It appeared in the magic hour of the trucker trend, released in the U.S. in 1980 in an Americanese-dubbed version from the rather ironically-named American International Pictures, who’d done very well for themselves in the field of automotive carnage. (Their first release was 1955’s The Fast and the Furious.) For those who remember the Mad Max trilogy principally for everything that seemed ahead of its time about its aesthetic—the sporting goods store mix-and-match/S&M/gladiator costuming—it is interesting to re-watch the first film, itself just recently issued to Blu-ray by Shout! Factory, and see just how of its time it was. Rockatansky and his partner, Goose, are cast as hard-working new centurions hobbled in the performance of their duties by the letter of the law, à la Dirty Harry (71). In subsequent installments, social breakdown is followed by an energy crisis, though the treatment is more Aussie eco-panic than American “So what?”—it’s “Beds are Burning” vs. “I Can’t Drive 55.” The enormous success of Mad Max was, one suspects, instrumental in bankrolling Richard Franklin’s Road Games (81), a big rig-set thriller starring Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, and a dingo—still the greatest Australian trucking movie of all time, though now it’s got Fury Road right on its donkey.
* As mentioned in the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, truck trailers in the Meatpacking District were often used for fuck parties, although it is unclear if FGL are alluding to this phenomenon. Gay porn auteur Fred Halsted, from whose L.A. Plays Itself (72) Thom Andersen’s similarly titled film takes its name, used truck trailers in his short-lived sex club, Halsted’s. Though I have not seen it, Halsted’s filmography includes a film called Truck It (73), which suggests an alternate history of the suck ‘n’ fuck truck movie.