Sometime back in 1977…
“Coming soon from the director of THE EXORCIST… SORCERER! Yeah, Sorcerer! Sounds supernatural, sounds scary, sounds out of this world! Let’s go see it! Oh wait, there aren’t any sorcerers in it? It’s not a horror? Not even a fantasy? Well what the hell is it? What is Sorcerer? It’s the name of a truck? Well, is this truck EVIL, like in Duel or something like that? No? It’s just a fucking truck? Just a bunch of ugly, unwashed criminals driving a fucking truck? What else is out? STAR WARS? Sold!”
The above might have happened in many a household perusing the cinema listings in their local newspaper. Sorcerer was a disaster when it was released. It had already been a troubled production, spiralling over budget to the extent that it involved two major studios to finance it. Many critics savaged it. It did not make its money back. That vague, misleading title did it no favours whatsoever. Nor the fact that it was a dark, slow-burning, grim tale of non-heroes in desperate times. No humour. No happy ending. No real stars either – true, Roy Scheider had starred in the at-the-time most successful film ever, but was Jaws a hit because of his star power? No. One of the reasons that film worked so well was precisely because of Scheider’s unpretentious, everyman persona. Some critics didn’t like the fact that Sorcerer was a remake of cineaste favourite The Wages of Fear, a remarkably tense French thriller from the Fifties. How dare Friedkin tackle such material? This was more sacrilegious than The Exorcist! So Sorcerer tanked. Then it disappeared.
It’s easy to see why Sorcerer floundered against Star Wars. The latter was unlike anything else – an extraordinary step forward into the new blockbuster era, where awe, fantasy, escapism and the sheer joy of the moviegoing experience was taken up into the stratosphere, beyond it, in fact – way up into the stars. A grim, earthbound trek – no matter how unbearably suspenseful or brilliantly made it was – was never going to stand a chance. I’m not going to fashionably slag off Star Wars for stealing Sorcerer’s thunder – George Lucas’ film set in stone the cinematic era of my youth, ‘the Second Golden Age of Hollywood’ as Homer Simpson would put it (although he insanely thinks the era never ended!), so I’ll always be forever grateful, even if Star Wars has dated somewhat compared to its two sequels, and as a film in itself is one I find myself going back to less and less.
The first act is a bravura example of deliberate slow-pacing – it takes nearly half-an-hour to fully introduce our four characters. These are not very likeable protagonists – an assassin, a terrorist, a fraudster, a getaway driver – but we’re with them as they find themselves stuck in the world’s most humid, dank village in South America, where the only employment available is from the nearby oil factory. However, when a disastrous incident there leads to a formidable fire, all the jobs are gone. The only way to put out the fire – and bring back the jobs – is to extinguish it with nitro-glycerine, and the only supply is a highly, HIGHLY unstable batch that’s liable to detonate with even the slightest nudge. Getting the supply to the fire involves a 200 mile truck journey over the most treacherous terrain imaginable – only the most suicidal or desperate would take on such a mission, but our four anti-heroes (in fact, anti-hero sounds way too generous, there’s barely anything heroic about these guys) are the ones for the job. Well, three of them are – the assassin only gets the job at the last minute via cutthroat means. And so the journey begins.
The latter half of the film is essentially an extended set-piece – that’s an hour of on-the-road, agonising suspense that feels utterly real because it is utterly real. No CGI. No back projection. Real trucks, real scenery, real danger. The original Wages of Fear was formidably white-knuckle inducing but Sorcerer takes it to the next level – the ultimate level in fact – in regards to sheer force-of-nature, hellish wheelbound tension. The most celebrated sequence involves the world’s ricketiest rope bridge and the men’s attempt to cross it. Seriously, this bridge is practically falling apart – travelling over it is madness. And yet that’s what our characters – and the filmmakers – did. Even if the weather wasn’t atrocious it would be an insanely risky sequence. That the wind and rain (and the trees) are practically attacking the characters makes this particular stretch of the journey an absolute nightmare to endure. It’s a remarkable sequence – possibly Friedkin’s most impressive, jaw-dropping moment come to think of it. Think of the car chases in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A, crank up the tension (yet slow down the pace) and just marvel at how it was all done. I mean, how the hell was it done? Sheer knife-edge excitement gives way to one hell of an obstacle in the form of a HUGE tree trunk, deadly soldiers and the world’s weirdest desert valley. By the end the effect is exhausting, almost hallucinatory.
There’s greatness throughout – the fiercely unsentimental approach makes for a gut-punching, at times shocking journey. There’s no Hollywood glamour at all – even the presence of Roy Scheider doesn’t make it feel like a blockbuster. He’s never looked so grimy, shabby or shaken up. The photography and location work is incredible – you feel like you’re right there in the dirt of the village, the heat of the fire, the density of the jungle. German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream deliver a stand-out score – their first ever soundtrack, and far, far, far from their last – that really adds to the moodiness. The ending is appropriately downbeat – unimaginable any other way, frankly. Bizarrely, the film is still rated PG in the US – this was from the era when you could get away with a lot more in a so-called family certified picture. We get two F-bombs during the first act for starters, and there’s a fair bit of bloody violence too. The UK settled for the more appropriate ‘AA’ (over 14’s only) and eventual ‘15’ certificates.
In regards to public availability, Sorcerer drifted on the fringes. The UK never seemed to get any kind of home video release, and we don’t seem to have been a television screening since the early 1980’s. There were VHS and Laserdisc releases in the US and a full-screen Region 1 DVD release back in 1998 and I can only vouch for the quality of the transfer in regards to the latter. It was dreadful – blurry, washed-out and pan-and-scanned, totally compromising the amazing visuals. Of course, that was the first time I ever got to see the film (and the only available version to me until recently), so I could only assume it was an appalling version of the original. Warner Bros.’ new Blu-Ray confirms this. This latest release is a revelation and it is an absolute joy to see this film look so good. I’ll be disposing of my old DVD tomorrow.