In 1977 all there was, was Star Wars. Sure Annie Hall was the Best Picture of the year, and while the masses watched Spielberg having his first encounter with aliens, Herbie going to Monte Carlo, Shatner fighting killer arachnids, Smokey chasing the Bandit, as “Orca” was chasing the success of “Jaws”, Travolta thought we should all be dancing, and John Boorman was directing the “Exorcist II: The Heretic”. The director of the original Exorcist, William Friedkin made a intense, rough, thrilling film that no one saw.
“Sorcerer” is the story of four men who leave their own countries of Mexico, Israel, Paris, and America and all wind up in a run down jungle town in South America. As they see that their situation has not improved, they desperately take on a highly dangerous but profitable job transporting unstable nitro glycerin 200 miles to stop an oil drilling fire.
Roy Scheider is Dominguez, formerly Scanlon a low level thief/getaway driver from New Jersey. When a job robbing a church goes south he leaves the country. Bruno Cremer is Serrano who left Paris to escape embezzlement and corruption charges. Franciso Rabal is Nilo a assassin from Mexico who is also on the run. The last man Kassem played by Amidou is a terrorist bomber who fled Israel after a political bombing. The men are hired to take two trucks carrying three cases of nitro glycerin across dangerous terrain to it’s destination. Director Friedkin like with his classic thriller “The French Connection” shoots the film in an almost documentary style to enhance the realism. There is a lot of handheld shots and tons of non-actors surrounding the men in the small town.
This also marked the first American film scored by Tangerine Dream who went on to score tons of 80’s movies like “Risky Business”, “Firestarter”, and in my opinion their most appropriate in tone Ridley Scott’s “Legend”. Their score seems to come in at times where they want to punctuate a sense of dread or tension, it’s a little too John Carpenter for me which would be fine if “Sorcerer” was a horror film.
There is a tremendous amount of set-up as it takes over an hour to get going to the main mission. Friedkin does display some memorable moments throughout the film though, the shocking and graphic violence, there are some spectacular (real) explosions, Scheider is channeling Bogart from “The Treasure on the Sierra Madre” with that same mix of calmness and intensity. The best scene by far is the crossing of an dilapidated bridge in the rain which cost the filmmakers a million dollars to set up. It’s tense and I was on the edge of my couch as it played out. My other favorite part of the film was the look of the trucks the men use to transport the explosives. They look like two ancient dragons that lost the ability to fly and are reduced to slowly marching forward to their possible deaths.
Maybe it’s my age, but when I see a film like this that’s gritty, tough, and has something to say about what humans will do to survive. A film that uses practical effects to this degree, and when the passion for the filmmaking is clearly represented on the screen, I can’t help but pine for those times before the prequel-sequels-CG-big-robots-explosions with no substance took over. Friedkin wasn’t trying to reinvent anything with “Sorcerer” but he did leave us a reminder the same year we were all traveling at light-speed with Han and Chewie, not to forget to look back at how filmmaking used to be, and how it could be again.
–Robert L. Castillo