Sorcerer: The misinterpreted classic from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection

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By the mid-1970s, William Friedkin was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood. His 1971 crime drama The French Connection picked up 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Two years later, The Exorcist became a milestone in the horror genre, was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Only Francis Ford Coppola with his two Godfather films and The Conversation between 1972 and 1974 could be said to shine brighter.

At this point, Coppola and Friedkin both embarked on ambitious new film projects which would take them far from civilization, both physically and metaphorically. Each would personally confront the existential demons that their on-screen protagonists were fighting to overcome.

Coppola’s film took a year just to complete photography, due to an arduous location shoot in the jungles of the Philippines and health issues with his key actors. It nearly destroyed his career, but after several postponements, it was released in 1979 to critical and commercial success and cemented his place in the pantheon of directing gods. The film was Apocalypse Now.

Friedkin’s film similarly required nearly a year of photography, with elaborate sets built in the jungles of South America, besides location shoots in other parts of the world including Paris and Jerusalem. His crew suffered from injury, gangrene, food poisoning and malaria. The film, titled Sorcerer, was released in the summer of 1977 and sank without a trace. The title misled audiences into thinking it was a supernatural movie from the director of The Exorcist. In fact, it was a slow-burning story about four men trying to transport boxes of dynamite through the jungle. Also, no one could have predicted the cultural phenomenon that Star Wars became a few weeks later. In no time at all, theater owners took Sorcerer off and brought back George Lucas’ scifi epic. Friedkin’s career nose-dived and he never got another decent directing gig in Hollywood again.

I watched Sorcerer for the first time last weekend; it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. And that makes the fate of the film and its director even more tragic.

Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 French classic The Wages of Fear, itself based on the 1950 novel of the same name. Why the unfortunate and misleading title? It’s the name painted on one of the two trucks used to transport boxes of explosives through the jungle. So random! In retrospect, if the title had been different and the movie had been released closer to the Oscars, it may have all turned out differently.

If you haven’t read the book or seen The Wages of Fear, it is difficult to describe the movie. It is partly a character study, partly a thriller and partly a morality tale. It has therefore been described as an ‘existential thriller’. There are four opening vignettes that show the backstories of the four men (from Mexico, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey) and how each ends up on the run. The scene then abruptly shifts to a hot, humid, muddy Latin American jungle. The four characters have all landed up in a shanty town, living in squalid conditions, surrounded by impoverished locals, trying to eke out an earning taking whatever jobs are available, mostly with the giant American oil company that dominates the local economy. The transition is extreme and you can sense how wretched it must be for these men to find themselves stuck in this hellhole. They were running away from civilization, but now they want to get back somehow. But illegal visas cost money and they have none. Eventually an opportunity comes up that brings the four men together – a dangerous assignment transporting 6 cases of highly unstable nitroglycerine sticks (split across 2 trucks) through 200 miles of jungle to help put out an oil well fire. The oil company is willing to pay handsomely on completion of the job.

The trucks themselves are key characters in the film. There is a sequence where the men pick two trucks from a scrapyard and then painstakingly bring them to working order using scavenged parts. You can see ‘Sorcerer’ below; looks menacing doesn’t it? Doesn’t look like this creature wanted the men to complete their assignment…

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And so at the half-way point of the movie, the journey finally begins. Each truck carries three cases placed far apart from each other on a bed of sand in the back. The men have to be extremely careful not to jolt the truck while driving through the jungle. There are several tense moments as the trucks have to navigate natural and man-made obstacles relying on a combination of skill, teamwork and pure luck. The bridge crossing sequence which is illustrated in the movie poster is truly memorable. This scene alone took months of reshoots and cost USD 3 million (a full movie’s budget in those days).

One can imagine that a story like this cannot possibly end well. On the positive side, the mission is indeed accomplished and the men achieve a sort of redemption, having at least re-discovered their own humanity.

A special note regarding the eerie soundtrack by German electronic band Tangerine Dream. It is discordant, relentless and extremely unsettling. Apparently, the band composed the music based only on the script without seeing a single minute of footage from the film. The music is indeed a perfect fit with the images on the screen.

If possible, do watch the restored version which was released on Blu-ray in 2014. Really worth it.

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