Director William Friedkin couldn’t have been on more of a hot streak: “The French Connection,” released in 1971, won five Oscars, and “The Exorcist,” released in 1973, won two Oscars.
In 1977, he released a movie he would later call the best of his career: “Sorcerer.”
But “Sorcerer” was a bomb, grossing only $US6 million worldwide — short of its $US21 million budget — and receiving tepid initial reviews.
The existential thriller follows four criminals from around the globe as they accept a lucrative but deadly contract to transport gallons of explosive nitroglycerin across a South American jungle. The film is the second adaptation of French novel “Le Salaire de la peur,” which was adapted as “The Wages Of Fear” in 1953.
What went wrong? A lot.
It didn’t help that the film came out a month after the first “Star Wars.” In an interview with LA Times film critic Kenneth Duran, Friedkin explained,”‘Star Wars’ went into the Chinese [theatre in Hollywood], but they had to take it out after a week because ‘Sorcerer’ was booked. Within weeks, ‘Sorcerer’ was kicked out and ‘Star Wars’ went back in.”
In addition to its poor timing, the only remotely recognisable name in the cast was “Jaws” actor Roy Scheider (Friedkin wanted to cast the more bankable Steve McQueen, but negotiations fell thru when McQueen insisted Friedkin cast his wife as well).
Additionally, Fredkin explains in his memoir that the film’s title (and the fact that it was Friedkin’s first film following “The Exorist”) led audiences to believe it was more of supernatural thriller. The title refers to one of the two trucks featured heavily in the film, and while it’s certainly a large part of the story, it’s still misleading.
“The original title I’d proposed was ‘Ballbreakers,’ to which [Universal executive Lew] Wasserman responded, ‘Are you out of your mind?'”
Audiences may also have been discouraged that the first twenty or so minutes aren’t even in English.
The movie was also legendarily hard to film, with its $US15 million initial budget escalating quickly.
During a Q&A following a screening of “Sorcerer” at the New York Film Forum, Friedkin detailed how the extensive jungle shooting caused many weather-related delays and that gangrene and malaria became a serious problem.
Friedkin was certainly ambitious in how he show the film. The most famous scene takes place on a rickety rope bridge as the trucks attempt to traverse it. In his memoir, the director explains that the entire sequence took over three months to shoot, and construction of the bridge itself cost about $US1 million.
When the original river meant for the scene went dry, the crew was forced to tear down and rebuild the bridge elsewhere at the cost of another million dollars. When the second river proved just as difficult, Friedkin and the crew were forced to add an artificial current and rainstorm. He states that it was the most single most difficult sequence he ever filmed in his career.
Despite the initial flop of “Sorcerer,” the movie has built a cult following over the decades — and watching it recently I could see why.
Nothing is explicitly clear from the beginning, and part of the fun is simply watching the story unfold naturally as we become more and more invested in these characters. The rather elaborate setup takes up the first hour of the film, and the second hour focuses primarily on the characters’ treacherous journey through the jungle.
By presenting what is essentially a suicide mission, “Sorcerer” dares the audience to remain engaged. The viewer knows that destruction can occur at any given moment, which makes normally mundane sequences like a truck driving along a narrow path become harrowing and intense. The meticulous world and character building pays off once the actual mission begins and the characters must face their deepest fears.
Friedkin’s action sequences are intense, visceral, and suspenseful, all without the use of digital effects.
According to the director himself in his memoir, he has always had “a great fondness for ‘Sorcerer,’ more than any other film. It’s the film I hope to be remembered for.”
Thanks to a recent restoration commisioned by Friedkin, a beautiful transfer of “Sorcerer” is readily available for the first time since its initial release over 35 years ago.
The restoration came to be after the film had somewhat of a resurgence thanks to online film lovers who had recently discovered and began championing it on their blogs. Speaking with Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, Friedkin stated:
“The thing that saved this film and got it restored is a kind of massive Internet campaign. People wrote about it, blogged about it in very serious numbers, in the thousands. It achieved a reputation over the past 30 years. All these articles appeared about it, and nothing was available but an old version of the VHS.”
When the programmers of Cinefamily, a non-profit arthouse theatre in Los Angeles, reached out to Friedkin in hopes of screening the film after they couldn’t obtain a print, the director realised that finding one wouldn’t be easy, as “each of the studios that financed “Sorcerer,” Universal and Paramount, were both sold three times” since the film’s release.
In an interview with Moviefone’s Gary Susman, Friedkin explained:
“In 2011, [Cinefamily] e-mailed me and told me that they had tried to book the film and were told by Paramount that they didn’t own the film, and they didn’t know who did. So I sent them to Universal, and the same answer came in. So I had to sue both companies to determine who owned the picture. I sued not for money but for discovery. That showed that the rights had been vested in a company called Vivendi, which had once owned both Universal and Paramount’s foreign film operations.”
In the same interview, Friedkin goes on to state that his lawsuit proved fruitful, as “they wound up making a deal where Paramount has all the theatrical rights around the world, but Warner Bros. has all the home video and streaming.”
Now with the logistics figured out, Friedkin’s long lost film was ready to be discovered by eager film fans.
According to Friedkin, the new restoration of the film “looks as [he] had originally intended.”
After the Blu-Ray’s debut last April, Friedkin took to Twitter to clear the air on exactly which home video release features the new cut:
Amazon will not let me add a comment, but just know The SORCERER DVD they sell is terrible and I’m in the Process of remastering.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) May 1, 2014
Do not buy the sorcerer DVD from Amazon. They’re Still advertising the old piece of crap, made from a TV print, with new logo.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) August 2, 2014
He cared so much, in fact, that he ensured the new cut receive a proper DVD upgrade (not Blu-Ray exclusive), as well.
Sorcerer DVD is for sale 8/5 but be careful. Only buy the new logo with orange sticker on Front cover. All others are bad.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) August 4, 2014
For decades, legions of executives tried to bury Sorcerer. It was like a sport. Now, thanks to WHV, They can all go to hell.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) August 4, 2014
Despite all the hassle, the movie is worth it. While filming, the project became “an obsession” to Friedkin.
In his memoir, he writes, “it was to be my magnum opus, the one on which I’d stake my reputation. I felt that every film I’d ever made was preparation for this one.”
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