In 1977 William Friedkin released his long awaited follow-up to “The Exorcist.” It went down in film history as one of the most notorious box office bombs of all time, recouping only $12 million of its substantial (for the time) $22 million budget. Over the years critics have named a number of reasons for the film’s flop. For one, the film is titled “Sorcerer” and the marketing heavily played up the “Exorcist” connection, so audiences expecting tribal demons and witch doctors instead got criminals driving explosive-laden trucks through the jungle. There’s also no English spoken for the first 20 minutes of the film, which caused walkouts from confused movie-goers who thought they’d been tricked into seeing a subtitled foreign film; this problem was so widespread that a special
poster had to printed assuring people that the movie was indeed in English. Perhaps the most significant factor in “Sorcerer’s” spectacular failure was that it opened at the same time as a little movie called “Star Wars,” which cemented the swing in public taste from the gritty realism of the 70s to the blockbuster spectacles of today.
It’s a shame that “Sorcerer” was almost instantly forgotten because it’s a hugely entertaining and well-made film filled with great, understated performances, nail-biting action scenes and harrowing scenes of mother nature as a vengeful, ancient god who kills as indiscriminately as a child squashing ants. “Sorcerer,” a remake of a 1953 French film called “Wages of Fear”, concerns a group of scoundrels and lowlifes hiding out from past misdeeds as wage-slaves at a South American oil field. Their sins have brought them there but they can’t escape because their paychecks never quite add up to enough for the plane ticket out of the shantytown. When an explosion causes one of the oil wells to catch fire, the oil executives see that the only way to put out the fire is through a controlled demolition. It turns out the oil company’s supply of dynamite has been improperly stored and has become extremely unstable to the point that a mere jostle could cause it to explode. Rather than risk a helicopter or a unionized worker, the company recruits truck drivers from the village; two teams of two. One truck is driven by Roy Scheider, a gangster on the lam. The other is driven by a French white collar criminal. The two trucks have to drive over 200 miles through rough jungle paths and rotting bridges to deliver the unstable ordnance. If they survive, they get enough money to leave the hellhole they live in. If the other team dies, they get their money as well.
It’s not hard to see why someone expecting the “Exorcist II” would be confused and ultimately turned off by “Sorcerer.” It’s a strange and often unpleasant movie. The first half is mostly character based, showing how these lowlifes were exiled from their former lives and were forced to come to the dingy South American village. In a sense, the characters all die from their sins and are sent to hell. In the second half, they’re offered a chance of redemption, or at least escape, and the film abruptly changes gears from a character piece to an edge-of-your-seat action thriller. Here, the primary antagonist is mother nature, which sends hostile natives, storms that scream like demons and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to block their path. At times it even feels like they’ve left the real world and are driving through the landscape of hell, where at any minute they could be disintegrated in a fiery conflagration. “Sorcerer” might not be a traditional horror movie, but there are scenes I found downright scary and disturbing in a way that many movies with overt supernatural themes aren’t.
Above all, the theme of “Sorcerer” is that no matter how man might try to escape fate, it’s ultimately a futile gesture. It’s a cringeworthy comparison, but some thematic parallels can be drawn between “Sorcerer” and the “Final Destination” movies. In both, the devil wants, and will eventually get, his due. The world that surrounds us at any moment could turn on us and lead to our demise. If its bleak, existential fatalism doesn’t scare you off and you’re looking for some 70s grit, nail-biting action and Roy Scheider in his best role this side of Sheriff Brody, “Sorcerer” is a forgotten classic that is begging to be rediscovered.