Anniversaries have become a ubiquitous money-spinner for films, both in terms of public screenings and domestic releases, but the 40th birthday of William Friedkin’s thriller Sorcerer is worthier of marking than most, not just because the film has spent most of its life being ignored, but because it has a backstory that goes to the heart of everything that’s happened in cinema in the last four decades.
Sorcerer: 40th Anniversary; dir.: William Friedkin; USA 1977, 121 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★★/5
Sorcerer is usually identified as a remake of H.G. Clouzot’s 1953 smash, The Wages of Fear (itself adapted from a novel), though this description has always irked Friedkin, who believes his film has more originality than this suggests. It tells the story of four strangers exiled in a remote town in South America, all broke and unable to work due to lack of status. When a potentially catastrophic fire breaks out at an oil refinery, the four men are offered a shot at raising the cash they need to leave. The only way to put out the blaze is to blow up the oil well, but the only explosives available – decaying sticks of dynamite, highly sensitive to vibration – are stored two hundred miles away and need to be transported to the fire by truck, via a route decidedly short on tarmac. An American offers a handsome amount of dollars to anyone desperate enough to take on the task. Our guys duly sign up.
This suicidal journey forms the second half of both Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear (in which the cargo is jerrycans of nitroglycerin). Where Friedkin’s adaptation differs majorly from Clouzot’s is in the setup, and in its more direct characterization. The setting, in Chile, is an otherworldly open prison, very appropriate for the limbo the men find themselves in. While Clouzot mostly leaves the audience to speculate on how the characters got there, Friedkin wants us to know who they are, and exactly what they’ve been guilty of to wind up in this predicament. Sorcerer begins with four vignettes that tell each of the protagonists’ backstory, forming a prologue, though you have to stay with the film for quite a while – or have a working knowledge of Clouzot’s film – to understand this.
First is a man who will eventually become known to us as Nilo (Francisco Rabal), an assassin in Veracruz, Mexico, who ruthlessly carries out an execution then walks away impassively, in an opening scene that is a clear callback to the one from Friedkin’s multi-Oscar-winning breakthrough, The French Connection. Next is Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist who escapes after his gang carries out a bombing in Jerusalem. The third man is Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a crooked Paris stockbroker who flees from a lavish lifestyle with his beautiful wife to avoid a fraud rap. Finally, we meet Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a driver for an Irish gang in New Jersey, who is forced to go on the run following a raid on a Catholic church with ties to the local mafia. If you’re wondering who the good guys are, forget it. The four fugitives find themselves in a Kafkaesque trap; you must risk death if you wish to escape your life. It’s an existential dilemma that gives the story both a strong philosophical backbone and an overriding bleakness.
The money man, knowing the chances of success are slim, insists the dynamite is split across two trucks with a pair of drivers in each. Scanlon and Nilo take one, with Kassem and Manzon in the other. Friedkin saw the mission as a neat metaphor for international relations, as the American, the Mexican, the European and the Arab must somehow find a way to form a working alliance if they are to have a hope of survival.
When the two vehicles (named Lazaro and Sorcier – French for Sorcerer) set off across the jungle, Sorcerer becomes one of the most exhaustingly nerve-wracking film experiences imaginable. I had the good fortune to see the film on its recent re-release to the big screen, and I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve never felt tension like it. It is only when you see something like Sorcerer – and there’s not much else like it – that you realise phrases usually thrown away on thrillers such as ‘nail-biting’ can actually carry meaning. There’s a sequence lasting over ten minutes in which one truck tentatively crosses a river on a pathetic looking rope bridge, in a monsoon, that is almost unbearable. This scene and others are so real that your fear goes beyond that for the fictional characters. You’re fearing for the real people involved here; actors, stuntmen, crew, not to mention the director’s mental health.
The production of Sorcerer was beset by disasters; three of the four actors originally chosen by Friedkin for the lead roles dropped out, including Steve McQueen who was meant to play Scheider’s part. The studio refused to sanction the director’s first choice locations in Ecuador, and they ended up in the Dominican Republic instead, where half the crew went down with malaria and other illnesses. The aforementioned bridge, which cost a million dollars to construct, was built over a river which then dried up, and had to be moved to Mexico. The filming of the fictional terrorist attack in Jerusalem was interrupted by a real one, which Friedkin took advantage of by filming the ensuing chaos for his movie. Finally concluding late and miles over budget, the whole ghastly experience was compounded when the film flopped both critically and commercially.
Friedkin, the darling of Hollywood after scoring back-to-back hits with The French Connection and The Exorcist, openly admits that hubris got the better of him as he set out to up the ante still further. The Exorcist had been a mighty success, breaking the new box office records that The Godfather had set the previous year. This was the gritty 1970s heyday of New American Cinema, where Hollywood movies could be enormously successful despite narcissistic auteurs being in control and the films often being uber-realistic downers. The Exorcist was made in this mould, but also began to break it; it was a blockbuster before they existed, and the amount of money it took opened the eyes of studio execs as to what was financially achievable with films that played to the crowd. Jaws arrived two years later.
Before starting on Sorcerer, Friedkin briefly formed a production company with two of his fellow new wave princes, Francis Ford Coppola (who had just turned out The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation in the same year!), and Peter Bogdanovich. Coppola knew George Lucas, and tried to persuade his partners to take on his new film, but they refused to agree to a $9 million budget for a script that, in Friedkin’s words, “had wookies, robots, a princess and other assorted comic book characters”.
His zeitgeist-radar having sadly failed him, Friedkin embarked on the most ambitious project of the New American Cinema canon. Predating Apocalypse Now, Sorcerer embodies everything that period was about; it’s astonishingly realistic, high-risk, deeply philosophical, and thrilling filmmaking. It is also a piece of insane macho self-indulgence that would have zero chance of being made today. Not that macho self-indulgence has gone away of course, and personally I would take this purer form over the self-flagellation of the modern alpha male auteur any day.
Karma delivered its final insult to Friedkin when Sorcerer opened in 1977 alongside Star Wars, and was duly obliterated, along with its era. But Sorcerer is magnificent, and deserves to bask in every bit of its recent positive reassessment, as well as this release. Buy it, and drive carefully.