William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is the sort of flop whose failure seems easy to account for. The story goes like this: an art-house director was given a free pass to make an international blockbuster after the runaway success of his previous film, The Exorcist, proved that he could draw an audience. The South American production was beleaguered by technical problems that delayed the shoot by months. The cast was miserable. Half the crew was hospitalized with malaria. Soon enough the budget soared from its original $2 million to more than $22 million.
When the film finally arrived in theaters, in the summer of 1977, it was obliterated by Star Wars, which had opened only a few weeks before and dominated every screen in America. In the end, Sorcerer earned a little under $6 million domestically and quickly disappeared. For years to come it was lumped in with Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate as a symbol of New Hollywood’s Icarian hubris — a failure that helped kill a certain kind of American movie.
In the decades since, of course, Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate have been reclaimed by critics as visions of mad genius that happen to have been misunderstood, and this year, after considerable delay, it seems it’s time for Sorcerer to receive the same treatment. A gleaming digital restoration has been making the rounds theatrically — it opens in New York City to well-deserved fanfare on Friday — and has yielded a widely celebrated Blu-ray with a transfer personally approved by Friedkin himself, who has long maintained that Sorcerer ranks among his very best pictures.
There’s good reason to believe that’s true. Watching Sorcerer today, more than 35 years after its original release, it seems nothing less than a daring, even radical blockbuster; a truly great lost movie, and it’s hard to believe that two of the biggest studios in Hollywood ever would have signed off on a project this strange. It’s also difficult to believe that Star Wars was the only thing keeping audiences away: though billed as an action thriller, this wasn’t exactly made with accessibility in mind — not only does it take more than an hour for the main action to kick off, it takes nearly 20 minutes for a word of English dialogue to be spoken.
Photo: Everett Collection
But Sorcerer wouldn’t have worked had Friedkin needed to make concessions to blockbuster convention. The story is pretty straightforward: a loose remake of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is about four men on the run from the law working on an oil rig in the South American jungle. Cash-strapped and desperate to work their way home, they sign on for an emergency transport job that requires them to haul several crates of leaking nitroglycerin so precarious that the slightest bump could send them up in flames.
The resulting drive is almost unbearably tense. In one scene, we find them teetering across a wooden bridge in the middle of a storm, struggling to keep their cargo straight as rain bears down on them and waves crash against the truck from either side. In another, a massive log blocking their path has to be rigged with a spoonful of explosives to clear a makeshift path. These scenes last only a few minutes but feel like an eternity.
But what’s remarkable about Sorcerer is that through all of the agony of its jungle action, nobody emerges looking particularly badass or cool. This is an action movie without action heroes — just regular guys down on their luck, hoping to catch a break. Maybe that’s the real reason it never caught on. People like to get swept up in their blockbusters, to feel good about them. Sorcerer does the opposite: it’s not awe-inspiring; it’s bleak. That’s something we could use more of.
Photos by Lions Gate / Everett Collection