What follows is an incredibly subjective and biased look at the William Friedkin film Sorcerer. When I saw this film I was at the Plaza in Truro and not only did we have the presenting skills of Mark Kermode on hand, but the screening also included a message from Friedkin especially for us cinema goers at the Plaza. Also, the film isn’t currently widely available, but thanks to growing interest it looks like new home releases are on the horizon.
Putting the pieces together
Like The Exorcist, it takes a while for Sorcerer to get going. We follow four different men, in four different parts of the world as they destroy their lives around them in many and varied ways. But you have no idea what the connection between any of these characters are. It’s just a series of tragic events that if these had been any other characters, one assumes they would kill themselves in the face of the odds that are looming against them. These are men (Jackie Scanlon – ‘Juan Dominguez’ (Roy Scheider), Victor Manzon – ‘Serrano’ (Bruno Cremer), Nilo (Francisco Rabal) and Kassem – ‘Martinez’ (Amidou)) who have little left to live for.
The film starts slowly, but it’s critical for understanding what does motivate the characters and to realise that empathy isn’t necessarily what you’re meant to feel. I say this because when Sorcerer was released internationally in the late 70s, the film’s opening was cut, so you had no idea why characters were where they were and acted the way they did… though you might have had an idea if you’d read the novel that The Wages of Fear was originally based on.
Scheider and co. are all men looking for some form of redemption for the crimes they have committed. They’re not nice guys. The small town they all shack up at in the middle of the Dominican Republic, to me, was like some kind of purgatory. There was no way for any of them to get out with the help of an external force, their days were all pretty much the same. It was hot. Nothing good ever happened there. Their flat moods that would break out into fits of paranoia only further conveyed the image of men who knew they had gone as far as they could go.
But then they’re pushed further. For various reasons, their situation in purgatory is looking less and less tenable, they need to get out and it’s going to cost them to get out. Cost them more than anything they can possibly hope to attain through the means normally available to them in this small, deprived town.
Then the local, American owned, oil field is attacked and ends up on fire. The company that owns it determines that the only way to get the fire under control is to shove explosives into it. Having found out that their supply of explosives are not suitable for being taken out by helicopter, due to deteriorating so much, it is determined that the only way to get them to the fire is to slowly and carefully drive them by truck to the fire. The job is so dangerous the company asks for volunteers and through skill or chance, Juan, Serrano, Nilo and Martinez end-up being in charge of two trucks to move the explosives over two hundred miles to their fiery destination and seemingly being a descent into hell itself.
It is this journey that makes up the main part of the film. It is perhaps one of the tensest pieces of cinema you can ever watch. It’s more tense than the counting clock scenarios that were popularised in plenty of 80s and 90s action films. It’s more tense than the final moments of Seven. Seriously, you can’t give birth to as many kittens while watching any other film – this film is so stressful to watch that it should have health warnings for pregnant women and those with heart conditions.
The scene that’s most popularised is the one that appears mainly on its posters: the truck on the rope bridge and it’s one of the most dramatic scenes you’ll ever have the chance to watch. Apart from almost crushing Paul Blewitt’s right hand while watching it, the cinematography and direction was amazing. The effects were actually quite limited, but in a good way – that is a rope bridge on hydraulics over a river (though they had to move the bridge and refill with water) and that’s really a truck and there are real actors holding on for dear life with the odd stunt man switched in as needed.
One of the perverse effects of the film is how it makes you hope that the main characters will reach their goal, even though they’re all pretty despicable. You’re relieved when they make it through one trial after another, but then a little disgusted with yourself because you then remember they’re some of the worst examples of humanity. The way the film plays around with this cruel and exhilarating at the same time.
So why, most probably, have you never heard of this film before until now? It was a series of unfortunate events, which I discussed in episode 83 of Nerds Assemble, but essentially: 1. the title 2. its release date 3. what happened to the international release. Due to the title, much of the audience thought they were going to see a supernatural film, especially as it was marketed from the director of The Exorcist, rather than The French Connection. Also, the film came out a week after the first, original Star Wars – film audiences were being wowed by that and didn’t have time for a serious thriller set in the Dominican Republic that had the lead from Jaws (no, not the shark). And that whole half-hour missing thing: yeah, of course an international audience wasn’t going to make much of it.
But is it worth seeing now?
I’ve tried not to give away too much in this retrospective, which is unusual as most retrospectives assume that most people have seen the thing they’re about. However this is one of those films that hardly anyone has seen. And I want you to watch this film. If it comes out on disc again – go get it. If you’ve got a local indie cinema with clout: go get them to pester Warner Bros to let them get their projectionist’s hands on a remastered copy of the film. Yes, this film is worth watching, because you won’t know how terrifying films can be until you watch Sorcerer.