It’s a jungle-adventure film, Wikipedia says. All I know is that it took me a very long time to convince my horror-allergic wife to sit down and watch it.
‘Is it scary?’ she asks, quite reasonably.
‘No, it’s not a horror film,’ I say.
‘So, why’s it called Sorcerer then?’
Yes, William Friedkin, why is it called Sorcerer? If you asked him, you’d probably get any of a half-dozen answers depending on how literary he was feeling that day. The truth is fairly innocuous: one of the trucks has the word ‘sorcier’ (the French for ‘sorcerer’) painted on its bonnet; supposedly a reference to the Miles Davis album Sorcerer. It’s a terrible title for the film; even Friedkin has admitted it’s ‘an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist,’ made worse by the glimpse of that film’s Pazuzu demon over the opening credits. Friedkin’s earlier film grossed $66 million on its initial U.S. theatrical run, off a $12 million budget, so it ultimately seems to be a cynical attempt at disguising a ‘jungle-adventure’ film as something else.
The other excuse that is often brought out in defence of the film is that nobody went to see it because it was released so close to Star Wars. There may be some truth in this, but many films bombed on the big screen before finding an audience on home-video, Blade Runner being the best example. Sorcerer didn’t even manage to do that.
The problem is really in the construction of the film. First, we open on an extended prologue; four vignettes to show how each of the four men ended up in Central America. They’re all running away from something: Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a Mexican assassin on the run after a kill, Kassem (Amidou) is an Arab terrorist on the run after a bombing, Serrano (Bruno Cremer) is a French investment banker accused of fraud, and Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is an Irish gangster who accidentally kills the brother of a Mafioso in a bungled robbery.
While there’s no signposting that these vignettes are connected, there’s no signposting that they’re not connected either. If Star Wars appealed to the basest measures of the American cinema-going audience in 1977 – heroism, nostalgia, and popcorn – then Friedkin’s film does the exact opposite. The prologue takes 25 minutes before we land in Central America, that’s 25 minutes that (a) don’t make sense, and (b) occur mostly without dialogue or with subtitles. Is it any wonder that people were put off?
The following 25 minutes are similarly aimless, as the four men slowly ebb away their days in the village of Porvenir, looking for a way out. We finally see the oil-derrick explosion and the introduction of the sticks of dynamite at the 50-minute mark, and all of a sudden the film gears up for its second hour. If it was made today, the prologue would probably be told through flashbacks. It just doesn’t work linearly, although it fares much better upon repeat viewings.
This is where the magic starts though. From the moment the men start fixing the trucks that will transport the unstable nitro-glycerine – a sequence that seems to have had a major impact on TV series The A-Team – through to the conclusion of their journey, the extended third act of the film might just be the greatest hour of 1970s filmmaking. It’s clearly influenced by Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which also deals with the subject of transporting something bloody annoying through a jungle.
I’m not sure what Friedkin was up to, but one of the elements that stands out even more than the performances of the four principle actors, is the documentary feel of it all. It feels hyper-realistic, like they really did drive those two bastard trucks through a jungle and over the wonkiest bridge every committed to celluloid. The first explosion, from the bomb planted by Kassem at the start of his vignette, is even mixed with footage of the aftermath of a real bombing that occurred close to production. The film’s many explosions – Kassem’s bomb, the oil derrick, the tree trunk, and finally one of the trucks – are just massive in every way. It looks like people actually get injured in that first bombing explosion – in fact, the stuntman who triggered the explosion can be seen far too close to the blast and was injured as a result.
The last piece of the jigsaw is the soundtrack by German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, the start of a run of film scores they would do through the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. It’s a great score, and while you could say it just doesn’t fit the film, I think it adds to the elemental feel of the picture as a whole. The main theme that kicks in as Scanlon’s friend leads the mafia to Porvenir, and into the end credits, is so confronting and terrifying it’s practically a horror theme in itself, leading us back full-circle, where we started, to The Exorcist.
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