This review originally appeared on Cinema Scholars
Though better-known by its production issues, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer puts on a masterful display of non-stop tension that personifies the filmmaking sensibilities of the late 1970s. Woefully underseen, the film’s quality is lost in the story’s production. 45 years later, let’s look at the film and its making of it.
Sorcerer follows four men and gives a brief backstory to each. In Veracruz, Mexico, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) calmly executes a man in his apartment and walks out of the building. In Jerusalem, Israel, a group of Palestinian militants cause an explosion near the Damascus Gate. Of the group of four, two are killed, one is a arrested, while Kassem (Amidou) is able to evade capture.
In Paris, France, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is accused of bank fraud. He is given 24 hours to provide collateral. When his father-in-law refuses to help, his brother-in-law kills himself. Victor leaves his wife and homeland. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, an Irish gang robs a Catholic church with connections to the Italian mafia. The getaway driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) crashes the car, leading to the deaths of the other three gang members. Jackie is able to escape badly injured. Marked for death by the Italians, Jackie flees the country.
The four men find themselves in a remote Columbian village. Each live in extreme poverty, earning meager salaries. Following sabotage of the local oil well, the company needs to extinguish the fire using dynamite. The remote location of the depot and the instability of the nitroglycerine necessitates the use of trucks to make the 200+ mile journey. Enticed by a payday, the four men agree to transport the explosives.
As the four men assemble for the journey, they face a number of internal conflicts and environmental hazards. Will they complete the journey, or kill each other along the way?
Friedkin envisioned Sorcerer with an all-star cast led by Steve McQueen, Marcello Mastroianni, and Lino Ventura. After meeting with McQueen, who loved the script, Friedkin seemed good to go, but McQueen wasn’t. As much as he loved the script, McQueen wasn’t keen on leaving the country or his wife, Ali McGraw. In order to sign on, McQueen wanted McGraw to have an associate producer credit and be written into the film. Friedkin declined.
Mastroianni still wanted to be in the film, but following his divorce from Catherine Deneuve and the resulting custody battle for their daughter, the Italian actor declined as well. Robert Mitchum was the director’s second choice for Scanlon, but he sternly declined. Friedkin approached Warren Oates for the lead role, but the studio decided his name wasn’t big enough to carry the film.
With the budget already ballooning, offers went out to Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, but neither was willing to travel. Eventually, Scheider (who worked with Friedkin on The French Connection) landed the lead role. Refusing to take second billing to Scheider, Ventura dropped out of the film.
With the benefit of hindsight, Friedkin regrets turning down McQueen’s offer. The director’s constant frustration with Scheider was ever-present. Following a 2013 screening of the film, Friedkin shared his afterthoughts:
“And it was only a week later that I realized a close up of Steve McQueen was worth the greatest landscape you could find.”
The director believed Scheider’s frequent mood swings resulted in his newfound stardom after the runaway success of Jaws. Despite their successful relationship on The French Connection, things didn’t go as smoothly this time.
Friedkin filmed Sorcerer on location. Each of the four prologues were filmed in their respective cities, but the director loved Ecuador to double for Columbia. Pushback from Universal led the filming to move to the Dominican Republic. The owner of Gulf and Western (Universal’s parent company) Charlie Bluhdorn, intended to create a filmmaking center in the Dominican and pushed for the filming there.
Filming was a challenge from the beginning. Approximately 50 people had to leave the film for either injury or gangrene as well as food poisoning and malaria. Friedkin admitted almost half the crew went into the hospital or had to be sent home. The director himself lost 50 pounds and was stricken with malaria.
Outside of the health issues, Friedkin ran afoul of almost everyone else involved in production. He fired five production managers, went through a number of explosives experts, replaced original director of photography Dick Bush with John M. Stephens, and dismissed the chief Teamsters representative in charge of the trucks.
Despite the employment of stuntmen, the main actors performed a number of their own stunts at Friedkin’s insistence. Scheider said that shooting the film made Jaws look like a picnic. Amidou stated to the Morocco Times in 2005 that this film made the most lasting impression since he refused to have a substitute and paid for it physically.
The two most harrowing sequences in the film are the attempts for each truck to cross a rotten bridge during a violent thunderstorm. John Box designed the bridge using carefully hidden hydraulics allowing control of the movement of the bridge and the trucks. The first iteration cost $1 million to complete, but mother nature got in the way. Upon completion, the river underneath was nearly empty due to abnormally low rainfall. Box scouted different locations and settled on the Papaloapan River in Mexico. The entire bridge was disassembled and re-anchored.
Drought also struck the new location. The filmmakers utilized practical effects to complete the scene. A set of sewage pumps drained water from the river and diverted it to a sprinkler system. While filming in Mexico, an undercover federal agent informed Friedkin that several of his crew members were in possession of drugs and were forced to leave the country or face prison sentences. It took two weeks to replace them. The two scenes, totaling 12 minutes, took several months to film and cost approximately $3 million.
Following the fraught production, Paramount and Universal Pictures agreed to a distribution deal to open the film on June 24, 1977. While Universal would handle the western United States, Paramount would handle the eastern US. The push-pull between both studios would be a problem for the film and for Friedkin.
The film’s trailer debuted a month earlier, tacked on to the opening of another 1977 release, Star Wars. Film editor Bud Smith relayed the trailer reaction to author Peter Biskind:
“When our trailer [for Sorcerer] faded to balck, the curtains closed and opened again, and they kept opening and opening, and you started feeling this huge thing coming over your shoulder overwheling you, and you went right off into space. It made our film look like this little, amaturish piece of s**t. I told Billy [Friedkin], ‘We’re freaking being blown off the screen.'”
Smith was correct. A month after Star Wars, Sorcerer debuted to only $5.9 million in the US and another $9 million worldwide. Film critic Roger Ebert estimated the film would have to make $45-50 million just to break even. It never got close.
The film’s title certainly didn’t help. Audiences expecting a supernatural thriller in the vein of The Exorcist kept waiting for a demon who never appeared. Additionally, the film’s first 16 minutes feature no English dialogue. Assuming a foreign subtitled film, audience members walked out in droves.
Following the film’s poor reception, Universal voided their contract with Friedkin. The director moved to France to recuperate and sever ties with the American film industry. He continued to work steadily and continues to direct in his late 80s.
Friedkin intentionally shot the film without sentiment or melodrama. No character is a clear-cut hero or villain. Each has their extreme faults and their redeeming qualities. Regardless, each character has their own moment of heroism when their back is against the wall. Friedkin admitted as much to The National in 2013:
“One of my themes is that there is good and evil in everyone. I was not out to make these guys heroes. I really don’t believe in heroes. The best of people have a dark side and it’s a constant struggle for the better side to survive and Thrive.”
The entire plot of the truck transporting explosives is a theme of contrast. Each of these trucks are heavy and lumbering, but each has to be smooth and delicate. Every rock and every divot in the ground poses a killable threat. It’s a case of nature’s indifference to the presence of man. Construct oil wells and roads, but the land doesn’t care if the road is difficult to traverse. One wrong move and the mission is over.
Intentionally or not, Friedkin put colonialism front and center. The economy of this Columbian village and surrounding area is totally dependent on this American oil company. Not only do they exploit local labor for work, but when things go wrong, they still expect the locals to come through with a solution. Shutting down the well is not an option, they must endure for the sake of capitalism.
Almost to a fault, the director relies on viscerality. No one in the film dies with subtlety. All gunshots land with force and viscera. A crowd carried charred corpses. Dead bodies are seared into the audience’s memory as vividly as the characters. This pronounced line between life and death only adds to the tension. With such an exclamation placed on death, the potential of violence increases the potential for tension.
Despite its branding of a flop, Sorcerer ranked 9th on Ebert’s top 10 films from 1977. The film’s exceptional sound effects earned Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Richard Tyler, and Jean-Louis Ducarme an Oscar nomination (though they lost to Star Wars). Mixed-to-positive reviews followed, though most of the negativity focused on the production struggles and budget.
Directors Quentin Tarantino and Benny Safdie both list the film in their top films poll, while writer Stephen King listed the film as the top movie rental that “never let me down.” The film is firmly listed as fresh from Rotten Tomatoes. Friedkin himself looks back on the film’s failure and never stopped believing. In an interview with The National, Friedkin stated:
“I measure the success or failure of a film on one thing – how close I came to my vision of it.”
While epitomizing the excesses and freedoms granted to auteur directors in the 1970s, Friedkin executes his vision with the chaos needed to convey the necessary tension. Much better than its reputation suggests, Sorcerer is a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, without being able to make it work commercially.