There was no magic in the timing of William Friedkin’s 1977 release Sorcerer. An unusual thriller about four men transporting trucks full of nitroglycerin over treacherous jungle terrain to extinguish a raging oil fire, the film was a tremendous flop. How did the director of the massive hits The French Connection and The Exorcist fizzle with such an explosive concept? Join me after the jump to find out. (Just don’t click hard. This nitro’s going to go…)
A remake of the classic Henri-George Clouzot film The Wages of Fear (1953), Friedkin deviated from the jungle-bound original, adding over an hour of set-up to establish the main characters’ seedy backgrounds. When we first meet them, it doesn’t take long to realize they’re each criminals of one stripe or another. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider, just two years after his star turn in Jaws (1975)) is part of a botched heist ripping off a New York Catholic church collection that appears to be a money laundering operation connected to the mob. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) assassinates a man in a South American hotel. Kassel (Amidou) is an Arab terrorist in Jerusalem, the only one of his cell to escape after the bombing of an Israeli bank. And the polished Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a wealthy investment banker about to be arrested for a fraud bankrupting his family firm. They all flee to the dismal Nicaraguan oil town of Porvenir deep in the forbidding jungle. Out of money, working dangerous industrial jobs, living in ramshackle squalor, they want out. Well three of them do. Nilo might be a hitman hired by the mafia to find and finish off Scanlon.
Their chance to finally make enough money to escape this living hell comes when terrorists bomb the oil well, setting off a raging fire that cannot be extinguished. Not wanting to hold production and wait for emergency supplies to reach the remote location, the company overseer opts to use the store of spoiled dynamite they have on hand. The catch? The nitroglycerin that’s pooled in the bottom of the crates of dynamite must be transported over 200 miles of dense jungle to reach the fire. Even at the slowest speeds, in the rickety trucks available, it’s a suicide mission. Knowing this, the company’s willing to pay, large. And our antiheroes are desperate enough to take the risk.
What follows are some of the most white-knuckle, nail-biting sequences of celluloid ever filmed. Through damaged, winding roads in scabrous hills and over dilapidated bridges, the two trucks creep slowly forward. One bad bump, and BOOM, a plane ticket out of here is the last of these miscreants’ worries. The bravura sequence of Scanlon and Nilo trying to maneuver their truck over a ruined suspension bridge during a torrential downpour, the raging river below foaming and cascading, is worth the price of admission alone.
Made for $22 million (approximately $85 million in today’s dollars) and shot on location in the Dominican Republic, the film was over-budget and troubled from the get-go. Friedkin originally had conceived the film on a much smaller scale, then later decided to go all-in on Sorcerer, figuring it would be his legacy. He believed deeply that action is character, and felt that a group of antiheroes in a desperate situation would be gripping in and of itself, with no need to make any character relatable. He had problems with crew and unions, struggling daily to get the film finished. The fantastic bridge sequence was a masterpiece of pneumatic and manual effects. Originally built in the Dominican at a cost of $1 million with hydraulics to control its movements, the river it was built over turned out to have an unseasonably low water level that year, to the point that the riverbed ran dry. The entire bridge had to be dismantled and moved to a location in Mexico, where it was reassembled and shot for the sequence in the film.
So why did Sorcerer fail so badly? Because fail it did, grossing just $9 million worldwide. The misleading title didn’t help. Taken from the name of one of the rusted trucks used in the movie, audiences didn’t connect the sinister and magical title with the grim disjointed realism Friedkin gave them. But more than anything, the blame could be laid at the doors of two men: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Sorcerer was released at the end of June 1977. Just one month prior, a little sci-fi picture called Star Wars (1977) was released, pulling in huge crowds with its gripping effects-laden space opera. Sorcerer was booked to play Mann’s Chinese Theatre in L.A. immediately following Star Wars. Friedkin had even gone to see Star Wars at the theatre before his own picture was released, and he knew he was doomed. Within weeks, Sorcerer was gone, and Star Wars was back. The block-buster era of Hollywood, first begun with Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, was ushered in with a vengeance. The “New Hollywood” movement that had coalesced around Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and others, giving us films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Wild Bunch and many many more, was blown to smithereens. Audiences lost their taste for antiheroes, and instead embraced heroes. Ambiguity was over. In the wake of Viet Nam and Nixon, Hollywood and America turned to a new feel-goodism, one which would lead through disco’s hedonism to the relentlessly upbeat neo-50s revisionism of the Reagan era. In short, Friedkin had a very big cultural deck stacked against him. Just like the antiheroes of his film, he didn’t have a chance.
Sorcerer is a very hard movie to track down. Critics are coming back to it now, giving Friedkin’s albatross a glowing reassessment. And well they should. As one of the last great New Hollywood films, Sorcerer stands with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter as a classic of a bygone era. People as diverse as Steven King, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Ebert all revered the movie, gob-smacked at the culture that turned its back on such a gripping embodiment of pure cinema. TIFF has a beautiful digital restoration of the original print that looks fantastic. The images are striking, and Tangerine Dream’s propulsive synth soundtrack underpins each tense moment. For the last hour of agonizing suspense alone, it’s mandatory viewing. The movie screens tonight on Saturday, April 12th, at 6:30pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Two more screenings follow, on April 15, 6:30pm, and April 18, 9:00pm. It’s part of the TIFF Cinematheque’s Special Screening Series, which includes a pile of brilliant films, including an archival print of the Palm d’Or winning The Wages of Fear, the Steve McQueen classic The Great Escape (1963), the original non-Nicholas Cage-starring The Wicker Man (1973) in all its spooky occult glory, Fritz Lang’s chilling thriller M (1931) and Micheangelo Antonioni’s riveting modernist masterpiece L’Avventura (1960). For a list and details of all the films in the series, as well as screening times, see here.