SORCERER: Friedkin’s Underrated Masterpiece

William Friedkin’s feverish portrayal of men in extremis was originally intended as a cheap $2.5 million fill-in project between his 1974 smash THE EXORCIST and his next major film, THE BRINK’S JOB (1978). Things did not quite work out that way.

Loosely based on the Georges Arnaud’s novel Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), and director Henri-George Clouzot’s classic 1953 screen adaptation, SORCERER follows the fortunes of a motley band of exiles, thrown together by fate, who must transport a deadly cargo of explosives through the South American jungle. It stars Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou, and was filmed on location in the rain forests of the Dominican Republic. Obviously you can’t get all that for $2.5 million and a more realistic budget of $15 million was eventually settled on, with two studios, Universal and Paramount, holding the purse strings. In the end, it cost a great deal more than that – and not just in dollars.

An insight into how the film’s budget mushroomed (and, perhaps more interestingly, the tone of the production itself) can be gleaned from just one of its key sequences. For the scene where two dilapidated trucks, each laden with each, effectively, an unexploded bomb, must traverse a derelict rope suspension bridge, Friedkin had the bridge built from scratch over the Rio Chavon in La Altagracia province, complete with an elaborate system of hydraulics to control the movements of the bridge and the trucks. When an unseasonable drought put paid to the roaring cataracts and torrential rain Friedkin had envisioned, the studio suits suggested he re-think the scene on a smaller scale. It was a red rag to a bull. In characteristically pugnacious style, Friedkin instead had the entire structure disassembled, crated up and then re-built over the Papaloapan River in Oaxaca, Mexico, some 1,700 miles away. When that became stricken with drought, he employed sewage pumps to deluge the set with water. According to Friedkin, filming was further hampered by one of the trucks repeatedly toppling over into the river. All told, a scene that lasts twelve minutes on screen – albeit twelve minutes of nerve-shredding tension – cost three-million dollars and took almost four months to shoot.

The film begins with four separate ‘vignettes’ (each filmed in its appropriate location, naturally – Paris, Veracruz, Jerusalem, New Jersey) that set out the backstory to each of the main protagonist’s presence in a remote mountain village in Latin American. A squalid shantytown, Provenir is effectively ruled by a corrupt American oil company in league with the country’s military dictatorship. Following a terrorist attack, one of the company’s oil wells is in flames and must be extinguished with dynamite. The problem is, the only stash available is rapidly deteriorating, sweating nitroglycerine and so unstable a minor tremor could set it off – hardly ideal when it has to be driven 200 miles over mountain tracks and treacherous jungle trails in junkyard trucks. Desperate for money to escape their predicament, the four exiles – a Mexican assassin (Rabal), a disgraced French businessman (Cremer), a Palestinian terrorist (Amidou), and an Irish-American mobster (Scheider) – form an uneasy alliance to take on the mission, a Top Gear holiday special from hell.

What follows has all the elements of a classic Boys Own adventure – an arduous journey with peril at every turn: impenetrable jungle, crumbling cliff paths, even the mandatory rickety rope bridge. At one point the way is blocked by a massive log, which has to be blown up with some of the on-board dynamite (for this, Friedkin employed the services of a New York arsonist known as Billy the Torch, who was flown in specially). But in many ways, this is an anti-quest: there is no glorious prize to be won, no redemption to be had, and the only truth to be learned is that life is a game of chance, and fate plays dirty. Also absent is a hero, as was Friedkin’s express intent. Abetting the natural obstacles that plague their progress is the men’s rancor and mistrust, which boils over into anger and violence. SORCERER is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve. Herzog’s AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD (1971) is an obvious touchstone, as is John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948). But there’s no wise old Howard, or mild-mannered Curtin here. Everyone is Dobbs, with desperation subbing for avarice.

As is the way of these things, the ten-month shoot for SORCERER somewhat mirrored the action on screen. The atmosphere on set was fractious, particularly between Friedkin (whose ‘Bad Bill’ nickname was not lightly bestowed) and Scheider who, the director felt, had let the success of Jaws go to his head since their work together on THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Friedkin’s first choice for the lead was Steve McQueen, who was on board until Friedkin refused to give McQueen’s then-girlfriend Ali McGraw an executive producer credit. Citing his own arrogance, it’s a decision he bitterly regrets to this day (although it should be noted that Friedkin has never been less than complimentary about Scheider’s performance). Friedkin also clashed with the teamsters, and at one point had to employ an entirely new trucking crew. No fewer than five production managers were fired, and, at the Mexico location an undercover federal agent advised several crew-members to leave the country or face jail sentences for drug-possession.

Stunt doubles were used sparingly – they were not used at all during the bridge sequence – with predictable consequences. By the end of the shoot, around fifty people had been either hospitalized or sent home suffering from on-set injuries, gangrene, food-poisoning or malaria. Friedkin himself lost fifty pounds and was diagnosed with malaria shortly after the film wrapped. As one commentator put it, making another clear parallel, this time between SORCERER and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), “Friedkin took his camera crew to the the jungle and never quite returned.”

The sacrifice was to little avail. Apart from the brooding synth score by Tangerine Dream, a bold choice by Friedkin that helped put the German electro-pioneers on the map, critics found almost nothing to like about Sorcerer on its release in June 1977. Audiences stayed away in droves. Of those that did show up, many left during the prologue in the mistaken belief it was a foreign-language film. With some justification, Friedkin blamed the meager box office on STAR WARS (1977), which had already been in theaters for two weeks and was busily crushing all in its path (in fact, when SORCERER replaced STAR WARS at Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood, it was such a dud, the management cancelled it and brought STAR WARS back!). But there were other factors at play, too. Not the least of them was the title which, given the storyline, is confusing to say the least. It’s actually the name painted on the lead truck, driven by Scheider, but there’s no way of knowing that unless you’ve already seen the film. Friedkin has concocted all sorts of highfalutin explanations (fate being the ultimate sorcerer, and so on), but it’s all blather. The title was chosen to establish a connection with THE EXORCIST, a strategy that backfired disastrously.

Still, the intervening years have been kind. SORCERER is now generally regarded as a minor masterpiece and an exemplar of the all-too-brief moment in the 1970s when American cinema fully embraced the auteur esthetic – or at least more fully than at any other time. Championed by contemporary critics and filmmakers alike, it is now often (if controversially) cited as superior to both Cluzot’s version and the original novel.

“Somewhere there’s an alternate universe where SORCERER is a massive game-changing hit,” wrote writer-director Josh Olson in 2007, “and I’m doing Trailers from Hell commentary on some unknown cult classic called STAR WARS.” In 2009, Stephen King placed it at No. 1 on his Entertainment Weekly list of 20 Movies that Never Disappoint (he placed Cluzot’s THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953) at No. 2), and in 2016, its long hard slog to proper acclaim complete, it was screened as part of the Cannes Classics section at the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s original title, incidentally, was Ballbreaker.

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