William Friedkin’s Sorcerer had the unfortunate timing in 1977 of being released concurrently with a movie called Star Wars, which people ended up liking a little bit. Friedkin was hot after releasing The French Connection and The Exorcist earlier in the decade, but Sorcerer ultimately failed at the box office and slipped into relative obscurity in favor of his other movies. This is a shame, because Sorcerer is a monster of a film.
Based on The Wages of Fear, the first third of the film essentially amounts to four separate prologues for four separate characters from Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey (one of these things is not like the other). Roy Scheider cashes in on the success of Jaws two years earlier as lead man in Sorcerer (the New Jersey one), but the time spent with each of the characters is intimate and highly involved; the Walon Green script, too, is like a tough steak that tastes good but has to be chewed and wrestled with. It’s difficult to tell throughout this opening act where Sorcerer might turn next.
All four men end up working for a bootleg oil-drilling operation in the deep South American jungle, and soon the game of the film is set: in order to have any hope of escaping the jungle, the men volunteer to transport extremely volatile cases of dynamite 200 miles to a rig site. Their transports are two gigantic and impossibly old trucks. A mix between Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Ice Road Truckers ensues.
And the entire journey is essentially one long, sustained thrill, beginning uncertainly, barreling forward and slamming the brakes only to accelerate again. The men cross a twiglike bridge in an insane storm in a sequence that took three months to film. Three months. They encounter obstacle after obstacle, all the while with the knowledge that the slightest bump could upset the dynamite. This second hour of the film is unparalleled in intensity.
Most intriguingly, none of the characters are the “hero” of Sorcerer. Scheider, who for most viewers will be the “anchor” from the start as he’s easily the most identifiable face, is in some instances the most despicable one of the group. The oddly-structured but equal-length prologues also lend the sense that none among the team is the heroic one. It’s almost as if no such thing could exist in the jungle, and it’s a major thing that makes this film special and recognizable.
Some cite this as a weakness of Sorcerer: that the characters are held at arm’s length, that we can never be on their side if we don’t know who they are. And it’s certainly true that the four prologues aren’t placed in that precise manner to accomplish what prologues are generally meant to accomplish. We don’t know these guys any better for having seen their origins. But we do know that their presence in the jungle is a result of their categorical misfortune, and this is what ties the prologues to the latter half of the film. These people have no control over their fates in the jungle — lending more credence to the mystical title Sorcerer — and however much they rage against the powers that be, tragic ends seem unavoidable.
Some of Friedkin’s films leave much to be desired, but Sorcerer places the director squarely in the company of Michael Mann and David Fincher. There are films today that are gritty and intense and films that take out the hero formula in favor of realistic characters, but they aren’t quite like this. Sorcerer is something else.