Sam Peckinpah was a complicated man, but a director many reference as having created some powerful, iconic films that often dealt with loners and nihilism through an incredibly violent lens. Hal Needham was a stuntman, a stuntman so famous that there was a playset with his name attached to it.
One of these men was awarded an honorary Oscar. One ended up filming Julian Lennon music videos.
For the purposes of this triple-feature I am bringing together the CB Radio culture iconic films and the spiritual follow-up and step-child of the Oscar Winning film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Star Wars was the highest grossing film of 1977, grossing the then-ridiculous amount of $307M (against an $11M budget), Spielberg was third with Close Encounters of the Third Kind taking in $116M (against a $20M budget), but what film was number 2?
With a budget of only $4.3M, and taking in $126M was Smokey and the Bandit! Wanting to approach this iconic film with a critical eye, I decided it was worth watching. This was Needham’s first film, and although many of the car stunts might seem tame today, at the time, they were incredible, and much of the action of the film holds up surprisingly well. Jackie Gleason is ridiculous as the Texas sheriff, chewing up every scene he is in, but just when he might be getting too much, the film returns to the plot, which is the chase. The interplay between Reynolds and Fields holds up, and Jerry Reed does a fine job as the third wheel, and “Eastbound and Down” is damn memorable as a theme song.
Sam Peckinpah’s iconic films include the Wild Bunch and the Getaway, but in 1978, even though he was riding a string of non-hits, had discovered cocaine (thanks James Caan), had been offered the chance to direct King Kong and Superman. He turned them down, and after Cross of Iron didn’t perform as well as he hoped, he believed he had a hit on his hands with Convoy. With an allotted budget of $6M, the film went $5M over budget, most of the directing was done by Peckinpah’s friend James Coburn, and it was critically panned. However, it did gross over $45M and was the highest grossing film of Peckinpah’s career. Ali MacGraw has a very 70s perm, and Kris Kristofferson is awesome, as he usually is. Some of the action sequences are so oddly filmed (the bar fight), but this film is filled with so much setting and flavor it oozes 1978. Here, Ernest Borgnine plays the role of frustrated sheriff, and although “Eastbound and Down” would become Jerry Reed’s iconic song, the star of Convoy is the even-more iconic title track, which oddly served as inspiration for the film.
Even more oddly, the song was a novelty song written by an ad-man who created an outlaw country singer persona name of CW McCall. The song is iconic enough that Rolling Stone named it the 98th best country song of all-time. I bet Chris Gaines wishes he could have been this successful.
This film doesn’t hold up as well, but has some solid action sequences, and manages to squeeze in an incredible amount of timely commentary amidst the narrative.
The last film in this viewing trilogy is the second most iconic film in Needham’s limited filmography (11 films total): The Cannonball Run. Where Smokey had some humor, and would likely be considered a comedy, Cannonball Run borders on groan-inducing screwball comedy. I have read a couple biographies of Dean Martin, I know that his boozey persona was a well-cultivated act, but his performance here is painful to watch. The “humor” in this movie lacks in almost every way. Every performer seems to be in on a joke with their performance, but as viewers we do not what that joke is. the intro scene could have been iconic had it a memorable song, instead Ray Stevens (I cannot confirm if this is the same Ray Stevens of The Streak) delivers a bizarre early 80s anthem that goes nowhere.
The film is just over 90 minutes long and the race doesn’t start until about halfway through. Little of the race footage is compelling or action-packed, an certainly, there is little to no drama. The jokes are awful, and the ending of the film feels so contrived, as if Needham lost a bet and had to pay-up, or the screenwriter just gave up. Tonally, it is in line with the film, but has no sense of drama. This film is utterly bizarre and feels incredibly dated and out-of-date (I was shocked to see it was released 4 years after Smokey).
Needham has 11 films to his credit, most of which are not noteworthy, the most iconic of which would be Smokey. Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch is one of the most iconic films of all time, the American Film Institute feeling it worthy of inclusion on several of their “100 Years” lists. Peckinpah’s films are topics of discussion amongst film critics and historians, as they might not all be classics, many have some of the same recurring themes and worldview.
Needham, however has more Oscars than Richard Burton.
Then again, so does Jackie Chan.