Sunday, May 16, 2021

Will Shiers heads to New Mexico in search of the filming locations used in the classic 1978 trucking film Convoy.

Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth pullin’ logs. Well actually that’s not strictly accurate. Yes, it is dark as I pull out of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on an homage to the classic 1978 trucking movie Convoy, but it is late November, and instead of a 1970s K-Whopper, I am behind the wheel of a 2017 Peterbilt 389. I do, however, have CW McCall’s classic song, on which the film was based, blaring through the truck’s stereo at maximum volume.

Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy is in my view the greatest trucking movie ever made. It proved popular with the general public too, grossing NZ$62 million in the States. Not only did it do wonders for CB sales, it also proved to be a fantastic driver-recruitment tool. A whole generation of school kids, myself included, decided there and then that we wanted to be just like Rubber Duck. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that moving baked beans between London and Birmingham in a Ford Cargo might not be as exhilarating as hauling explosives through America’s southwest behind a Mack! Well, for two days only I am living the dream – as I go in search of some of the filming locations used in Convoy.

In the movie Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald drives a 1977 Mack RS712LST, but my steed is a modern American classic – a Peterbilt 389. The truck is a 2017 model, and together with a stunning custom paint job, cost its owner well in excess of NZ$220,000. Driving a 389 (and the 379 it replaced) has been on my bucket list for a long time.

My first stop is the White Sands National Monument, 442sq km of beautiful white gypsum dunes, about two hours northeast of Las Cruces. This is where the movie’s opening scene was filmed, where Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson) first sees Melissa (Ali MacGraw) in her Jaguar E-Type. I can’t wait to drive down that same stretch of road in the Pete... But unfortunately it is not to be. Not only am I told that I should have applied for a filming/photography permit, but the national park warden, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sheriff ‘Dirty Lyle’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine), tells me I’m a security risk too. Bizarrely he seems to think that me driving a truck through the desert is some sort of terrorist threat! So instead, much to the amusement of the surprised onlookers, I photograph a 1:50 scale model truck instead.

From here I head northwest for 430km to the town of Algodone, which is my next filming location. The journey takes me on Interstate 25, and the Peterbilt is more than happy to sit at a legal 129kph throughout.

“Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck, and I’m about to put the hammer down.”

The Pete has been specced with a 550hp Cummins ISX. Rubber Duck’s Mack probably had a Cummins under the hood too, but real American truck fans will tell you that in some of the scenes it sounds suspiciously like a Caterpillar or Detroit Diesel.

The address I’ve put into the sat nav is for Raphael’s Silver Cloud Roadhouse, which is where the famous fight scene took place. One of the criticisms of Convoy is that it doesn’t really know what genre of film it is. While director Peckinpah was apparently trying to make a serious modern-day western, with truck drivers fighting against crooked lawmen and unfair regulations, the bar- room brawl looks like it should be a scene from Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run instead.

The sat nav finally tells me I’ve reached my destination, but I’m surrounded by vacant plots. A sheriff from a nearby Native American reservation pulls over to find out why I’m parked-up at the side of the highway. I ask him about Raphael’s, and he tells me it was razed to the ground a couple of years back.

Will wasn’t allowed to take the Pete out onto the White Sands National
Monument and replicate the movie’s opening scene as the local sheriff felt
it was a security threat ... only in America. Not to be beaten, out came the
1/50th scale of the Rubber Duck! Take that Sheriff ‘Dirty Lyle’ Wallace.

Having destroyed the cops’ cars, from here Rubber Duck, Pig Pen/Love Machine (Burt Young), Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) and a handful of other truckers make a run for it.

“Callin’ all trucks, this here’s the Duck. We about to go a-huntin’ bear.”

Everything’s going well until they reach the town of Bernalillo, which is where I’m heading to next. It’s here where Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) overturns her Brockway while making a hard left on a four-way intersection.

“Goddamn piece of white junk, I knew I should have bought myself a black truck.”

Apparently this is a genuine accident, but looked so good on camera that it was written into the script.

Bernalillo has expanded in the past 40-plus years, and looks nothing like it did then, but with the help of an elderly local man I am able to locate the exact intersection.

Shortly after the crash, the convoy uses ‘an old back way into New Mexico’. In reality they’re already in New Mexico, as almost the entire movie is shot in the state. This track was Waldo Canyon Road, and it’s just 30 minutes from here. On the drive there I listen to Kris Kristofferson, who is, in my humble opinion, the greatest living country singer/song writer. The filming of Convoy was actually halted for several weeks while he left the set for a concert tour.

Waldo Canyon Road is still a dirt track, and I gingerly venture onto it, making sure I don’t chip the truck’s paintwork.

As the convoy supposedly headed south for the Mexican border (in actual fact it simply criss-crossed the state), the local residents lined the streets to show their support. One of the most iconic of these locations is the historic town of Las Vegas, New Mexico (not to be confused with Sin City in Nevada), where the local brass band is playing. As the convoy circles the town square you can clearly see the Historic Plaza Hotel, and that’s where I’m staying tonight.

This Las Vegas might have a distinct lack of casinos and strip bars, but it’s a really cool town nonetheless. Over the past century more than 100 films have been shot here, including Easy Rider, Red Dawn, and Wyatt Earp. In fact, as I check in I discover that this very hotel features in No Country for Old Men.

Over a few beers I get chatting to a Vietnam vet, who is amazed that I would travel all the way here, and asks whether I’ve ended up in the wrong Las Vegas by mistake. Apparently every year plenty of holidaymakers do just that, despite the two Vegas’s being about 1600km apart. When I tell him that I’m a fan of the movie Convoy, he casually announces that he was good friends with the late Donnie Fritts. Not only was legendary musician Fritts the keyboard player in Kristofferson’s band for 40 years, but he actually also had a part in Convoy, playing the reverend in the ‘long-haired friends of Jesus’ bus. It’s a small world.

“Eleven long-haired friends a’ Jesus in a chartreuse micro-bus.”

As I check out the following morning it’s to discover that my hotel clerk also appeared in Convoy – or at least her pick-up truck did. She tells me that during the making of the movie, they were crying out for extras, so her and her older sister headed out of town to a location where they knew filming was taking place. It turned out to be the famous scene where the police try to stop the convoy with a roadblock.

“But there’s a roadblock up on the cloverleaf, and them bears was wall-to-wall. Yeah, them smokies is thick as bugs on a bumper; they even had a bear in the air.”

Everything is going well until the moment when the Rubber Duck informs the “bear in the air” that he’s carrying explosives. Suddenly it’s a mad rush to get the cop cars off the road. “Although I don’t make it into the scene, you can see my old Chevy parked on the grass,” she tells me. I think I find the exact spot, but I can’t be sure.

From here I head west to Estancia, which is best described as looking a bit tired. Apparently back in the 18th century this Spanish settlement was totally destroyed by Indians. In 1978 it was destroyed again, this time by 10 big rigs, which busted up the place in order to free Spider Mike from jail.

Will’s chariot for the Convoy pilgrimage, a
new 389 Peterbilt. Sadly he didn’t find a hot
chick in an E-Type Jag, get in a fight, and set
the whole ball rolling again.

“You could tell by the smell it was truckers’ hell, and the devil was Dirty Lyle.”

Parts of the town look like they’ve never been rebuilt after either attack.

This scene is near the end of the film, and unfortunately it’s almost the end of my trip too. While I’d love to take the Peterbilt over the bridge (which was supposed to take the trucks across the border into Mexico and safety) where the famous explosion scene was filmed, unfortunately it’s impossible. Not only was it filmed in Needles, California, some 1000km west of here, but shortly after Convoy was made it was also pulled down and replaced by a new bridge.

“They’d brought up some reinforcements from the Illinois National Guard. There’s armored cars, and tanks, and Jeeps, and rigs of ev’ry size.”

Ironically, the M42 40mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun that helps to destroy the Mack (which incidentally had to be pushed across the bridge by a bulldozer as it had just broken down) was used in the Vietnam War for truck convoy protection duty.

My final destination is the New Mexico State Fair Grounds in Albuquerque, which is where the climatic funeral scene was filmed.

“You ever seen a duck that couldn’t swim? Quack, quack!”

Some 3000 extras joined the cast and crew for this one, but 30 years later and there’s nobody around, and nothing much to photograph either. It’s time to reluctantly hand back the Pete’s keys and head for the airport.

The year 1978 was a true classic in terms of cinematic history, and quite a few movies (including Dawn of the Dead, Lord of the Rings, and Superman) have since been remade. Personally I reckon it’s about time Convoy was remade too. And this time, instead of a Mack, I reckon Rubber Duck needs to be behind the wheel of a Peterbilt 389.

“We gonna roll this truckin’ convoy ‘cross the U-S-A. Convoy! Convoy! Convoy! Convoy!”


• The duck on the hood of Rubber Duck’s Mack was later used in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof as the hood ornament on Stuntman Mike’s hot rod.

• Sam Peckinpah allowed actor James Coburn to work on the movie, and rumour has it that Coburn actually directed some scenes when Peckinpah was ‘unwell’.

• Both Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds were offered the chance to play Rubber Duck, but both turned it down.

• The name of the company on the door of Burt Young’s truck is Paulie Hauling. Paulie is the name of Young’s popular character in the film Rocky.

• CW McCall, who reached number one on both Billboard pop and country charts with the song Convoy, was elected mayor of Ouray, Colorado, in November 1985.

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