May 18, 2008

SORCERER (1977) - William Friedkin's WAGES OF FEAR

(1977, USA)

I wanted to watch a film to remember Roy Scheider, who passed away in February. Almost all of his seventies films still stand up well today. Marathon Man, All That Jazz, The French Connection to name a few… But I’d recently rewatched Jaws, so I plumped for Sorcerer.

While watching Sorcerer for the first time in many years, I recalled first seeing it in a London cinema in 1978, when it was called Wages of Fear. It was on a double-bill with Phase IV – another surreal film that would also fox any marketing department looking for an easy sell. At the time, I made a note that I’d been “confused” by the film - granted that I was only a teenager at the time. But seeing the region 1 DVD was something of a revelation – because the US version is half an hour longer. The story finally makes sense. I now think it's easily one of Friedkin's best films, and Scheider’s best roles.

After the success of The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin was trusted with a big budget to remake the classic French thriller, Le Salaire de la Peur The Wages of Fear. A brave idea likely to anger cineastes all over the world. His vision of the new version involved extensive location work in several countries, including deep into the South American rain forest. Paramount Studios had to team up with Universal to finance it. A director deep in the jungle with a spiralling budget? Very Francis Ford Coppola, very Apocalypse Now.

On its initial US release, under the mystical title Sorcerer, it made only a small fraction of its budget back, opening in the galactic wake of the first Star Wars. Audiences were more interested in seeing Star Wars over again, than seeing anything else – especially when the first 20 minutes was subtitled, and over two hours was downbeat.

The long globe-trotting prologue introduces four men from widely different backgrounds getting into so much deep trouble that each has has to run and hide deep in the South American jungle. A hitman, a terrorist in Jerusalem, a corrupt businessman in Paris, and a getaway driver in New Jersey in trouble with the mob.

I didn't remember any of this entire opening at all, only to learn it was lopped off from the European version I’d seen in 1978. That version starts in an unnamed South American village, with the four runaways hiding out in a hellish backwater so deep in the jungle, they can no longer afford to escape. Without their backstories, it was harder to work out who the central characters were and why they were stuck there. The only local employer is an oil company, but when an accident ignites the rig, no one can work, and the village descends into chaos, their only source of income cut off. The four exiles gradually team up for a mission that's very likely to be suicide.

The locations look like a trip into the unknown. The section of village where they get stranded was designed and fabricated as an extensive, shabby, outdoor set, unfairly portraying the (unnamed) Dominican Republic as a hopeless hellhole of a country where people lie in the streets, barely alive.

The story then clicks into gear as they are asked to drive 200 miles across roughly-hewn roads through the jungle, in lorries carrying extremely unstable dynamite, needed to extinguish the fire at the rig. To airlift this explosive is impossible and the political situation in the country means that outside help is out of the question. For a chance at big money, and an escape from their respective hells, they agree.

Without the use of miniature effects, the action is shot on location, even the gigantic explosion that ignites the oil rig. It all looks totally real. The huge lorries cross collapsing bridges, rocky canyons, and get stuck in the jungle. The iconic scene (on the album cover and poster campaign), shows the trucks swaying on a rope bridge in a tropical storm. Admittedly, the collapsing bridge is carefully constructed with steel cables, but looks like wood and rope. This didn’t prevent the production losing several trucks in the river! There's more background on the making of the film, here on Urban Cinefile.

The mission couldn't be more suspenseful. Any sudden jolt can set off the unstable dynamite. Every bump in the road puts the audience on edge. The cinematography captures the thick humid atmosphere, and the drivers’ stressful descent into a waking nightmare. The surreal landscapes they encounter are complemented by the bizarre synthesiser soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

Roy Scheider conveys every mile of his ordeal, ending up looking like a walking ghost of his former self. Of course, I won’t spoil the ending, but the original climax only makes sense if the prologue is intact. I certainly don’t remember that ending, indicating that once the opening scenes had been removed, the European release ending was changed as well, making it far less impressive as an experience. Seeing the long version on DVD has altered my opinion of the film drastically, to one of bountiful praise!

The original French film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques, Le Corbeau). but I only caught it on TV in the eighties, after seeing Friedkin's Wages of Fear in the cinema. I missed the jungle and the blood being in colour. The only scene that caught my imagination was one missing from Friedkin’s film, when the lorries have to drive fast to 'aquaplane' over a bumpy road.

In any case Sorcerer flopped, removed from US cinemas to make room for an extended run of smash hit Star Wars. Years later, even when the DVD was released, it was panned and scanned (from 1.85) to 1.33. When movies are hits, they get special editions. When they flop, they get dumped on the market. At least the DVD has the longer version, and I don’t think the cut-down version will appear again, as Friedkin is reported to have been far from happy about it.

Photoplay magazine (UK) May, 1978
The 1953 French original, The Wages of Fear, will be one of the first to be released by Criterion on Blu-Ray.

UPDATE, October 2013

After a brief legal battle to discover which film studio currently held the rights to Sorcerer, William Friedkin oversaw a brand new transfer of his original cut fo the film, restored for cinema screenings (in 35mm) and for an upcoming special edition blu-ray release in 2014. It's been a long wait - but this is an adventure finally worth praising.


  1. I too saw the "European version" of Sorceror, in Bangalore, India as a teenager in 1979. I remember seeing it at least two times. It was also released as "Wages of Fear".

    Having seen both versions, the full "Soreceror" on DVD, I actually prefer the European one. It had altoghether a tauter feel and in my opinion, the musical scores were better integrated with that version. Short clips of the missing scenes are inserted as flashbacks, so that you knew something about the past of these individuals.

    Although the European version is missing 30 minutes of Sorceror, There are at least a couple of scenes in the European version that are not present in Sorceror. The first is the title sequence with the helicopter flying low over the jungle with eerie Tangerine Dream music. This goes on for at least 3 minutes as I recall. When the chopper approaches the oil rig is also some dialogue in the chopper between a Nicaraguan official and an American oilman, in which I remember hearing "Si, I will tell el Presidente".

    Another missing key scene in Sorceror is the return ride by "Dominguez" (Roy Sheider) with cheering crowds, with flashbacks showing the explosions that extinguish the oil fire.

    Finally, in the European version has an ending which I preferred. "Dominguez" has the money, but now is in a dilemma on what he is going to do next. He, obviously, cannot return to the States.

  2. Drat, missing scenes. I thought I'd remembered seeing the oil rig explosion!

    I want to see that version again now.

  3. I saw Sorceror at a special screening in Los Angeles attended by Friedkin.
    What I heard was that 1.33 was his preference for the American DVD.
    Don't ask me why. I think the film was shot open matte (like Eyes Wide Shut), and maybe he just preferred those compositions (perhaps because it was similar to Clouzot).
    When the film was projected that day, it was 1.66 - not 1.85.
    Just an interesting note to drop here, since I know many people bemoan the lack of an R1 DVD in Anamorphic widescreen.

  4. There is an American B-movie rip-off/remake called VIOLENT ROAD made in 1958.It stars Brian Keith and it is set in the American southwest and involves the usual assortment of shifty characters hired to haul explosive rocket fuel across the desert. It is definitely the lesser of the three versions of Wages of Fear. What is surprising is the fact that no one involved in VIOLENT ROAD credits the original Georges Arnaud novel or the earlier French film. VIOLENT ROAD is pretty obscure these days. It has never to my knowledge been released to home video or DVD.

  5. As a graduate student in 1977, I was sucked into seeing this film by all the hype. Thirty one years later, I still consider it one of the "worst". Very depressing for the most part...

  6. Sorry to hear that, Dan. I certainly don't recommend SORCEROR as a comedy.

  7. I also prefer the european release of Sorcerer, "Wages of Fear". I felt the film language was more creative. It went straight to the meat of the story which was the jungle journey. It was more dramatic in using the prologue as flashbacks. A great example is when the former rebel/terrorist runs away from the giant tree (blocking their way) as it was about to be blown up - it parallel cuts to scenes of him running as a terrorist and all we hear is his panting and breathing as he runs across the jungle. And yes the ending is more psychological and mysterious with that slow dolly-in shot to Roy Scheider's close-up at the bar, than the US version which tended to be a cheesy gangster film ending in my opinion. I do hope they decide to release a dvd of the euro version in the future.

  8. I dug out my LD to watch this again last night. The opening is quite an interesting decision as it probably leaves the first time viewer wondering just what's going, and it helps the film stand on its own rather than as just a the "trip" is just part of the film rather than its entire raison d'etre. That said, does knowing how these men came to be where they are add anything to suspense set pieces? Arguably not.

    Now this is the one of Friedkin's films that I think WOULD benefit from a bit of late in the day tinkering. I find the editing a little off, often cutting away from/to a scene a little too abruptly. Also TD's music seems rather haphazardly used, and doesn't have the same imapct as in the likes of VIOLENT STREETS/THIEF and THE KEEP. In its current form SORCERER feels almost like a rough cut that needs a little tidying up.

  9. The European version of Sorcerer continues to be shown occasionally on TV in Europe.

    For those interested, here is an excellent comparison of the European version ("Wages of Fear") with the US version ("Sorcerer"):

  10. I consider this film to be easily one of the best films ever made. It's on no-one's top 100 list but mine, that I know of. I saw the complete version the first time around and even said to my wife, I doubted there'd be another film that year that could beat it. That year Annie Hall won Best Picture, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, Star Wars and The Turning Point were nominated. They were all pretty good films but in my opinion, Socerer was better than at least four. Steve McQueen's star power might have made it more successful but it wouldn't have been as good. I have never cahnged my mind over all the years. Friedkin's unapreciated Masterpiece.

  11. SORCERER should be in more Top 100 lists. If there were more around that ignored box office takings, this would stand a better chance.

    I saw it first time around on the strength of Friedkin's name and wasn't disappointed.

  12. I was the US version just a few days ago. its taken me far far too long to see this film. I believe if I had seen it when it first came out I too would have beend bitterly dissapointed. I'm glad I've "mellowed" in my old age because I truely appreciate this film absolutely love it to bits. This has burst into my all time top 20 very easily.

    A cracker of a film just so underrated by the mindless critics of the time.

  13. "The only scene that caught my imagination was one missing from Friedkin’s film, when the lorries have to drive fast to 'aquaplane' over a bumpy road."

    This isn't entirely true - the European version of the Friedkin film includes a scene when Dominguez (Scheider) and Pancho (Franciso Rabel) drive over the "washboard" - Pancho is driving and refuses to hit the required speed, so Dominguez has to stick his foot on the accelorator. It is actually the moment when Pancho exposes his cowardice, and explains why he (Pancho) isn't allowed to drive the truck again throughout the rest of the film. (In the original, Charles Vanel does this when he runs away from the truck as Yves Montand is trying to maneouver his way over a slippery wooden platform above a rocky canyon - of course Pancho, in the remake, redeems himself when he shoots the rebels and saves their lives, while poor old Vanel is forgiven only after he stoicly waits for the rock blocking the road to explode before being run over in the oil slick by Montand.)

    What is interesting about the US version of Sorcerer is that it includes a glimpse from the washboard scene just before Pancho's death, when Dominguez suffers from a bunch of flashbacks before the truck finally breaks down.

    Yes, Billy does need to put together a full cut of this film on DVD with an audio commentary.

  14. Thank you. Strange that the shorter European version has so many additional scenes. It's been decades since I saw it.

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