“No man is just anything.” – Blanche Manzon, summarizing a key theme of ‘Sorcerer’
Is it possible to view William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ (1977) in 2015 and judge it solely on its own terms? The film arrives with an unusually compelling backstory involving a troubled production, an auteur director with a string of hits (and a massive ego) who was due for a failure, and one of the most unfortunate release dates in movie history. After flopping both critically and commercially, ‘Sorcerer’ lived in relative obscurity for nearly three decades before enjoying a critical reassessment – even a resurgence – in recent years. Having researched all of the behind-the-scenes drama, I was intrigued enough to submit the film for consideration in this venerable forum, despite not having seen it before. However, as I began to watch ‘Sorcerer’ I wondered if I had handicapped myself a bit. Would I be able to objectively assess the movie, divorced from what I knew about its background, and simply let the images, sounds and story play out on the screen?
Luckily, I believe I succeeded in doing so. ‘Sorcerer’ is a tight, lean, thrilling piece of cinema – one which I found truly refreshing in an age of, well, ‘Star Wars’-type spectacle. As I watched it, I was reminded of two more widely recognized auteur films of the late ‘70s – Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). Those two films are certainly more celebrated (and less claustrophobic), but ‘Sorcerer’ approached similar subject matter, did it perhaps more efficiently, and was their equal in at least ambition, if not success. It was first through the gate in what could be called the ‘gritty, personal, yet operatic’ period of late ‘70s cinema, which would officially come to a close in 1980 with Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (though, astoundingly, even that film is now enjoying a similar reassessment!). ‘Sorcerer’ skillfully combines weighty themes with tense, tough filmmaking to become a genuinely thrilling experience. At times, I was surprised at how kinetic and violent it was (you gotta love that fake ‘70s blood!). It has a bleak worldview, to be sure, along with an absence of heroes to root for and an ambiguous ending, but I count these among the film’s strengths because they ensure a more lasting impact for the viewer.
The film is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953), a French classic with the same basic plot outline (Friedkin insists it is not a remake, but a “re-imagining” with original characters. Sure, Billy…). The plot can be very simply outlined – four men, living in forced exile in the South American hellhole of Porvenir, are tasked with transporting leaky and volatile explosives over 218 miles of jungle road to extinguish a raging oil-well fire. To accomplish this task they will use two trucks (the aptly named ‘Lazaro’ and ‘Sorcerer’), cobbled together from junkyard components. A simple plot, yes, but it provides a springboard not only for exhilarating set pieces, but for exploring grander themes such as the random buffetings of fate, and the necessity of forging alliances in the face of certain death. The film’s unfortunate title (which misled 1977 audiences to expect an ‘Exorcist’-type thriller…from the director of ‘The Exorcist’) refers more specifically, in Friedkin’s words, to an ‘implacable, cruel wizard of fate’ against whom humanity fights in a brutal and constant struggle. In retrospect, ‘Sorcerer’ is a perfect and truly ironic title, given the history of the film’s initial demise.
‘Sorcerer’ is chiefly an action thriller, but it also contains absorbing drama. Though we never really get to know them, the four principal characters are nonetheless introduced with care and detail in the opening stretch. They don’t even get in the trucks until just after the one-hour mark, but thanks to four prologues at the outset, and the bleak middle segment in Porvenir, we get a palpable sense of the desperation that drives each man, even before the perilous journey begins. Friedkin’s first choice for the role of Scanlon was Steve McQueen, but when he turned it down, Friedkin had to settle for Roy Scheider. I’m glad he did. McQueen would have been all wrong for the part, because Scheider and the other men possess a physical, world-weary sensibility that is essential in conveying the characters’ struggle for redemption. The acting (frequently done in close-up) effectively suggests complex emotions – principally greed, fear and despair. In a film with deliberate echoes of John Huston’s ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948), Scheider is given a great Fred C. Dobbs moment (“We’re sitting on double shares!!”), and he effectively sells the surreal, hallucinatory climax as well as Scanlon’s eventual acceptance of his powerlessness against fate.
From a technical perspective, ‘Sorcerer’ is very well-crafted. The film is filled with beautiful, tactile imagery. Rich jungle greens contrast beautifully against explosive oranges, and Friedkin’s trademark ‘documentary realism’ style of mise-en-scene, which first shocked audiences in ‘The French Connection’ (1971), is convincingly employed throughout. For example, while filming the bombing in Jerusalem, an actual terrorist bombing took place nearby, and footage of the incident was captured and used in the sequence. Indeed, the whole film – including the prologues – was shot on location, and we can tell. At times the two trucks (to say nothing of the actors) seem to be in danger of being swallowed up by the jungle, providing compelling evidence of what Werner Herzog called the “voodoo of location”. This refers to the ways in which an actual location can provide a sensory or visual impact that adds veracity to what is portrayed onscreen.
This is nowhere more evident than in the centerpiece of ‘Sorcerer’ – the harrowing bridge-crossing sequence over a raging jungle river. I use the word ‘harrowing’ without hyperbole – the sequence exceeded my expectations in every way. Going in, I knew that it was achieved through practical effects, that it was genuinely life-threatening, that, once built, an unprecedented drought forced the filmmakers to rebuild the bridge over another river (costing millions) and that it was supposed to be quite a memorable sequence. I knew all of that, but when the scene arrived I was transfixed by the escalating tension and dread that unfolded on the screen, reinforced by a marvelous sound design. In this scene, as well as a later one involving the careful detonation of a tree, Hitchcock’s oft-cited theory about the difference between suspense and surprise is validated (though we soon get a jarring example of the latter, too). There is also an effective use of montage in the truck-assembling sequence. Set to a hypnotic electronic score by Tangerine Dream, Friedkin intercuts the sweaty faces of laboring men with images of the inferno at the oil-well, simultaneously building suspense and inviting a direct comparison with the characters’ inner struggle. Walon Green’s screenplay is spare and taciturn, with very little dialogue, and the film favors imagery and pure cinematic storytelling over exposition – an advantage, in my opinion. In terms of craftsmanship, ‘Sorcerer’ shows William Friedkin (over?)confidently at the top of his game.
I do have some lingering questions after my initial viewing. The Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) felt a bit underdeveloped, even by the film’s comparatively minimal standard of character development. He lacks an ostensible motivation or need to escape his surroundings, and seems to be in Porvenir almost by choice. Is he on the run? Out of money? We never get a sufficient explanation, and must fill that gap with some assumptions about his situation. I wonder, too, if it might have been more effective for at least one of the four protagonists to be a more innocent or random victim of circumstance. Sure, once they commence their journey they are all at the mercy of fate, but prior to that one could argue that each man is simply living out the consequences of his poor choices. As it is, the most sympathetic character is the French financier Manzon (Bruno Cremer), providing a voice of reason and the film’s sole emotional anchor, if it can be called that. And of course there is the open-ended conclusion – Friedkin has claimed that the sound just prior to the credits is not actually a gunshot, but a car backfiring, thus leaving what happens in that bar entirely up to the viewer’s imagination.
The last question I have is a rhetorical one: would I have enjoyed ‘Sorcerer’ as much in 1977, or would I have opted for a corny space opera with clear-cut heroes and villains? Hard to say. Back then, America was still reeling from Vietnam, Watergate and a series of domestic ills, and ‘Star Wars’ provided them with a desperately-needed escape. Little wonder that a return engagement of ‘Star Wars’ kicked ‘Sorcerer’ out of Mann’s Chinese Theater after only a week of release. But the later success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ proved there was still a market for gritty, ambitious filmmaking. Was the ‘Star Wars’ juggernaut solely to blame, or was Friedkin’s hubris also the cause? As the maverick auteur demanded more money to achieve his vision (the budget swelled from $2.5M to $22.5M), he alienated both studios behind the project, and they responded by only lightly promoting the film. Certainly it didn’t help when Friedkin plastered a picture of the Paramount Board of Directors in the offices of the film’s shady oil company, either. The answer is probably some combination of those elements.
Abstract analytical exercises aside, I found ‘Sorcerer’ to be brilliantly crafted, exciting and memorable. Certainly it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I instinctively respond to films like ‘Sorcerer’ that are made with real ambition and grit, and that reject the timidity in most modern Hollywood films. Directors used to deliberately seek to make masterpieces and achieve a form of greatness. Francis Ford Coppola went to the jungle and emerged with a definitive vision of madness and war. William Friedkin went to the jungle to achieve his masterwork, and never quite returned. He can thank the cruel wizard of fate for that.