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Sorcerer (1977)


William Friedkin was one of the top Hollywood directors of the 1970s, with two big critical and commercial successes in The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). But his career faltered with the fallout from his 1977 film Sorcerer, one of the most infamous box office disasters of the 1970s.


Truck in mist and rain in Sorcerer 1977
One of the two trucks in Sorcerer

Sorcerer begins by introducing its main characters, four men whose lives of violence and crime are catching up with them. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is seen taking part in a botched robbery, and is wanted both by the police and by the victims' mob associates. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is on the run after carrying out a murder in Vera Cruz and Kassem (Amidou) after a bombing in Jerusalem. The fourth man is Victor (Bruno Cremer), fleeing from bankruptcy and jail as his family's shady business empire teeters on the brink of collapse.

All four men seek refuge in a grim shanty town somewhere in Latin America, a place of poverty, corruption and authoritarian rule. When an explosion causes a fire at an oil well more than 200 miles away, the oil company needs explosives transported through the jungle to the site. But the explosives have been badly stored and are degraded and unstable. The company needs four men desperate enough for money, and for the chance to leave this place, to take on the job of transporting the explosives on trucks to the oil well. In doing so, the men will have to battle with the elements, the jungle, dangerous roads and hair-raising bridges, as well as their unstable loads and the threat from local guerilla fighters.

Sorcerer was a passion project of William Friedkin's, a director who enjoyed considerable clout at the time due to his previous successes, The French Connection and The Exorcist, the latter one of the biggest hits of the decade. If the film's premise sounds familiar, it's because Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 film Le salaire de la peur, known in English as The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The Wages of Fear was a highly acclaimed film of its time, winning the BAFTA Award for Best Film, the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Grand Prize at Cannes.


Sorcerer cast, including Bruno Cremer, Roy Scheider and Amidou
Some of Sorcerer's cast, including Bruno Cremer (2nd left), Roy Scheider and Amidou

The screenplay for Sorcerer was written by Walon Green, screenwriter of The Wild Bunch (1969), another film about men of crime and violence who have reached the end of the road. Like The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer is a very masculine film and women don't get much of a look in. While there are minor female characters, there's no one as significant as Vera Clouzot in the 1953 version The Wages of Fear. Sorcerer's characters are not especially well developed and they are all varying shades of unsympathetic. Scheider, the nominal hero, is only sympathetic in relation to some of the other characters, including a terrorist bomber and an assassin. But the script weaves in interesting themes of political corruption and oil industry politics, and the film creates a vivid portrait of a corrupt, poverty-stricken Latin American regime. Like many other American films of the 1970s, there's also a degree of film literacy and nostalgia, with nods not only to the original The Wages of Fear, but also to John Huston's 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Many contemporary critics complained about the long build up to the main story of Sorcerer. It's not until about half way through the film that the characters set off on their perilous journey through the jungle. But The Wages of Fear also had a languid opening; the difference in Sorcerer is that Friedkin gives us what the audience of the 1953 film were denied, the back stories of the various characters, explaining how and why they ended up in this situation. And with an assassination, a terrorist bombing, a suicide and a botched robbery, the opening section of Sorcerer is never dull. Once the characters arrive in Latin America, the film builds up a detailed portrait of the kind of country they are living in, with an ever-present background of endemic corruption, frustration and political violence.


Roy Scheider driving a truck in Sorcerer
Roy Scheider as Jackie Scanlon

Once the men set off on their mission through the jungle, the film shows us where some of the huge budget went. Sorcerer pits its main characters against the elements, against the wilderness, against other men, and finally against each other. Some of the jungle footage is excellent, with the characters battling dangerous roads, steep drops, unstable bridges and fallen trees. The characters are tested against a hostile natural world and an inhospitable landscape. It's in this section that we get the film's stand out sequence and its most famous, as the two trucks have to cross a wildly swaying wood and rope bridge in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. In his memoir The Friedkin Connection, William Friedkin noted that this one scene took three months to film. The crew built their own rickety-looking bridge over a river in the Dominican Republic, but when the river ran dry, they had to find a different location, eventually finding one in Mexico, and re-build the bridge there. When the same thing happened at the second location, the crew resorted to creating an artificial river current and storm, with the whole scene costing $1 million to film, according to the director.  

One intriguing aspect of Sorcerer is its occasional symbolism. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the outline of a demonic figure seen briefly on one of the trucks, one that looks strikingly similar to the demon Pazuzu in Friedkin's previous film The Exorcist. There is also a grotesque demonic or goblin-like head seen carved into a rock face, and the camera pointedly lingers on this as the trucks drive past. The trucks also have an animalistic quality to them, snorting and grunting as they make their way through the jungle, like ancient monsters in a primal landscape. One truck even looks like a demon or gargoyle, painted in red with a toothy yellow grill. When smoke billows from the roof-mounted exhausts, it looks like an ancient demon, or a snorting dragon, and I'm sure this effect was deliberate. When a tree falls across the path of one of the trucks during a storm, it's filmed and scored as if the characters are being attacked by a wild creature, instead of an inanimate object. (Although this also acts as an unfortunate reminder of Friedkin's 1990 tree horror film The Guardian.)

I think Sorcerer's symbolic elements are intended to suggest that the protagonists live in a primal and hostile world, one where they are constantly under the watchful eye of capricious forces beyond their control or understanding. Beneath the veneer of modern civilization, there still lurk the same ancient forces, and the characters' fates have already been determined and cannot be escaped, no matter where in the world they run to.


Francisco Rabal pointing a gun in Sorcerer
Francisco Rabal as Nilo

Sorcerer was originally intended to be a relatively modest effort with a $2.5-3 million budget, but it developed into a much grander production and costs ballooned even beyond its eventual $15 million budget, with overruns taking the total production cost to around $21-23 million, with Universal and Paramount Pictures splitting the costs between them. For comparison, the same year saw the release of Star Wars and the James Bond epic The Spy Who Loved Me, both with final production budgets of around $10 million.

The film had a tough shoot over ten months in difficult terrain, mostly in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, as well as in New Mexico, where the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness provided the location for Scheider's surreal breakdown scene. Friedkin dispensed with numerous crew members during the filming and fell out with his director of photography, Dick Bush, who was replaced by John M. Stephens. Both men are credited on the final film.

In its protracted filming schedule, location difficulties and massive cost overruns, Sorcerer is reminiscent of some other similarly grandiose passion projects of the late 1970s, as Hollywood's auteurist era was winding down. Films like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Or, for a European example, perhaps Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), another film set in the jungles of South America. By the time Friedkin's team are rebuilding their bridge for a second time, over a different river in a different country, only for that river to run dry as well, Friedkin has almost become the quixotic hero of a Werner Herzog epic.


Truck crossing a bridge in Sorcerer 1977
The bridge scene in Sorcerer

Sorcerer turned into a box office disaster when it was released in the summer of 1977, and the American critics were mostly unimpressed. Some no doubt felt that Friedkin was riding for a fall, but it probably also didn't help that he was remaking The Wages of Fear, a film already established as a classic. The public stayed away, with Friedkin blaming it on Scheider, who he claimed was not a big enough star (he wanted Steve McQueen, but so did everyone else), and on the fact that Sorcerer was overshadowed by Star Wars, which had become a box office juggernaut.

There's no doubt that Sorcerer would have benefited from a starrier cast and that its misleading title didn't help. The name comes from one of the trucks in the film, but Friedkin admitted that it was also a deliberate but misguided nod to The Exorcist. But competition from Star Wars was probably not to blame. It's often claimed that Sorcerer was released only a week after Star Wars, explaining the public's lack of enthusiasm, but in reality Sorcerer appeared a whole month after, and there were plenty of other box office hits in the same summer including The Spy Who Loved Me, The Deep and Smokey and the Bandit. The latter was released almost at exactly the same time as Star Wars, but made twenty times as much as Sorcerer in the US. But it's obvious why the connection with Star Wars is made and why it's so hard to resist, because the latter film presaged a new era in American cinema, one that would leave behind edgy, cynical and introspective films like Sorcerer in favour of more uplifting fare.

After its failure at the American box office, Sorcerer was treated brutally by its international distributor, Cinema International Corporation, with the film cut down to 92 minutes, and re-titled Wages of Fear in many markets including the UK. The 92 minute version eliminates the opening scenes but inserts some elements of them into the film later on as flashbacks, removes chunks of the shanty town footage, and gives the film a more upbeat ending.

Despite it's rough reception, Friedkin is touchingly proud of Sorcerer, saying that it's the film he most wants to be remembered for. It had been so neglected over the last few decades that no one was sure who owned the rights and Friedkin had to sue both Universal and Paramount just to enable it to be released on home video formats.

The film has been rehabilitated in recent years, though, and is now regarded by many as a classic in its own right. The film was hobbled by its misleading title, a massively inflated budget and a lack of sympathetic characters, but it's a very worthwhile film and one that's much better than the critics made out in 1977. It's a great shame that it did so much damage to Friedkin's career, because it's one of his best and most intriguing films, a fatalistic epic with a darkly cynical view of the world and our place in it.

Sorcerer 

Year: 1977
Genre: Thriller, Adventure, Crime
Country: USA
Director: William Friedkin

Cast  Roy Scheider (Jackie Scanlon - 'Juan Dominguez'), Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon - 'Serrano'), Francisco Rabal (Nilo), Amidou (Kassem - 'Martinez'), Ramon Bieri (Corlette), Peter Capell (Lartique), Karl John ('Marquez'), Fredrick Ledebur ('Carlos'), Chico Martínez (Bobby Del Rios), Joe Spinell (Spider), Rosario Almontes (Agrippa), Richard Holley (Billy White), Anne-Marie Descott (Blanche), Jean-Luc Bideau (Pascal), Jacques François (Lefevre), André Falcon (Guillot), Gerard Murphy (Donnelly), Desmond Crofton (Boyle), Henry Diamond (Murray), Ray Dittrich (Ben), Frank Gio (Marty), Randy Jurgensen (Vinnie), Gus Allegretti (Carlo Ricci), Nick Discenza (Father Ricci)

Screenplay Walon Green, based on the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud  Producer William Friedkin  Cinematography John M. Stephens, Dick Bush  Production designer John Box  Editors Bud Smith, Robert K. Lambert  Music Tangerine Dream  Costume designer Anthony Powell

Running time 121 mins  Colour  
Production company Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures
Distributor Paramount Pictures / Universal Pictures (US), Cinema International Corporation


Comments

  1. Fascinating journey. I don't even remember this movie from 1977. It must have come and gone very quickly. And you are right about that unmemorable title. It certainly didn't do itself any favours. Blaming your star doesn't seem like a very gracious attitude, but the lack of success must have cut very deep.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It probably did come and go very quickly. In some places I think they pulled it and just put Star Wars back on instead. Many people were apparently confused by the title and thought it was a fantasy or another horror film.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice work. I never know that mouvie ever exist. I will watch it, for sure!

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is a shame the way things went with this film, all of it, but thankfully it's now being regarded on its own terms. I've not seen this film – admittedly, I've never heard of it – but I'll keep an eye out. I think it could become a favourite.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was restored and given a limited re-release recently, which helped it pick up some more fans. This was probably the first time the full version had been shown in many places.

      I was glad to be able to see it, as I've always been moderately intrigued by the film. Its obscurity was puzzling given its credits and the fact that the 1953 film is so well known.

      Delete

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