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  • Post last modified:September 17, 2023

Sorcerer: Calamity in Colombia


Photo: Paramount

The premiere of Sorcerer, a remake of the equally excellent Wages of Fear (1954), was marred by a troubled production in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, bloated expenses that required two major studios sharing distribution, negative reviews from the critics and a failure to realize that going up against an exciting new sci-fi pic called Star Wars would essentially kill Sorcerer at the box office. Still, the film has been heavily reevaluated since, and it now stands as director William Friedkin’s last great contribution.

Ending up in Colombia
The beginning of the film takes us to four different places where we are introduced to leading characters. In Veracruz, Mexico, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) shoots a man to death in an apartment. In Jerusalem, Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou) manages to escape the Israeli army after causing an explosion near the Damascus Gate. In Paris, stock broker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is accused of fraud; his business partner is also his brother-in-law and when he suddenly commits suicide, Victor knows that he’s toast. And in New Jersey, a robbery goes wrong and mobster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) realizes that he’s a wanted man.

These four men are running for their lives and they meet in Colombia where they hide, with fake identities, in a small village. It is dominated by an American oil company. When an oil well explodes, dynamite is needed to extinguish the fire. Four men must drive two trucks full of highly unstable nitroglycerin 218 miles. Guess who sign up for the task…

A confusing title
Those who did go to see Sorcerer in 1977 were reportedly confused by the title, and they had every reason. Friedkin had some vague idea that it would work as a reference to The Exorcist (1973), but obviously the two films are unrelated and the director’s subsequent attempts to explain the title have been unconvincing.

On the whole, Friedkin delivers a very brutal film where death comes swiftly and often as a surprise.

Still, that doesn’t mean Sorcerer lacks interesting themes. Friedkin didn’t really like to think of the film as just a remake of Wages of Fear and it does stand on its own in some ways. The backgrounds of the characters are more modern and global and the filmmakers don’t hold back in their depiction of how the villagers suffer in this hellhole of a place where imperialists rule. On the whole, Friedkin delivers a very brutal film where death comes swiftly and often as a surprise; it’s a bleak outlook and it lasts right through the memorable last scene where we’re not even quite sure what happens to the lone survivor. There are several nail-biting sequences as the four men need to navigate rickety bridges, avoid bandits and figure out how to pass a road that’s blocked by a huge fallen tree trunk.

Two cinematographers are credited. After failing to shoot the jungle scenes in a way that satisfied Friedkin, Dick Bush was replaced by John M. Stephens who managed to light scenes without having them overshadowed by the giant trees. Near the end of the film, Scanlon’s desperate, hallucinatory journey is also accompanied by diabolical images that has you thinking maybe Sorcerer wasn’t such a bad title after all…

Scheider is the right choice to play the unfortunate gangster who’s constantly battling fate. As for the music, Tangerine Dream broke new ground with their electronic score, a novel idea at the time, but Friedkin had a soft spot for them after going to one of their concerts during a visit to West Germany. Their effort is another reason why Sorcerer feels ahead of its time. Regardless if you chose to see this film or Star Wars in theaters in 1977, you were in luck. 

Sorcerer 1977-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced and directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay: Walon Green. Novel: Georges Arnaud. Cinematography: John M. Stephens, Dick Bush. Music: Tangerine Dream. Cast: Roy Scheider (Jackie Scanlon), Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon), Francisco Rabal (Nilo), Amidou (Kassem), Ramon Bieri, Karl John.

Trivia: Steve McQueen was offered the part of Jackie; Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood were also offered roles.

Last word: “I was profoundly influenced by the novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who wrote what is now known as magic realism. That’s the style that I adopted for the film. Magic realism. Realism in the sense that everything you saw we had to do, and I will put it up as one of the most difficult films ever shot, especially the bridge scene. That was life threatening. When the film was over, I got malaria and had it four or five months. Many of the guys who worked on that film came back with gangrene and other diseases. It’s not something I would do today.” (Friedkin, Deadline)

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