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.
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|
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.