One of the great commercial disasters of the 1970s deserves a proper home video release.
By the middle of that decade director William Friedkin had already directed two of the major films of that decade.
The French Connection (1971) was a ground breaking crime drama, which won 5 Oscars (including Best Director and Best Picture) and ended up as the second highest grossing film of that year.
Whilst The Exorcist (1973) was a cultural sensation which was the highest grossing film of its year and ended up being nominated for 10 Oscars.
In career terms Friedkin was up there with Coppola as one of the princes of the New Hollywood era.
His follow up film was Sorcerer (1977), a thriller which reworked the basic premise of Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (1953).
The premise sees four criminals from around the world (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou) accept a highly dangerous job transporting explosives across Nicaragua.
What gives the journey extra tension is that the dynamite they are carrying is highly sensitive and can easily be detonated if subjected to shock or vibrations.
The production was an unusual collaboration between two major studios, with Universal taking domestic rights and Paramount international.
After an arduous shoot on location in the Dominican Republic, it died an absolute death at the US box office, grossing a measly $12m on a reported production budget of $24m.
Coming just a month after the release of Star Wars (1977), its failure seemed to symbolise the death of the New Hollywood era and the rise of the tent-pole blockbusters that would take over.
But how does Sorcerer hold up today?
Whilst not exactly a lost masterpiece, it still contains some brilliant set-pieces and is definitely worthy of a restored version.
The audacious opening is remarkable: taking in several countries it explores the backstory of the four leads and how they came to end up on the run in South America.
But the film really kicks into gear when the perilous truck journey begins.
Two sequences are outstanding: one involving two trucks on a suspension bridge is a master class in tension, whilst another involving a blocked road is a brilliantly assembled set-piece.
There are also other things to savour: a hypnotic electronic score by Tangerine Dream, great use of real locations, some fine, world-weary performances and a memorable ending.
Part of the ongoing mystery of this film is why it failed so badly: did the studios effectively kill it before it had a chance? Did Friedkin upset powerful people in Hollywood?
Perhaps its pessimistic view of mankind at odds with the elaborate fantasy George Lucas had just unleashed on the world.
Roger Ebert said at the time that it was one of his favourite films of 1977 and wondered why it didn’t get a better release.
One aspect that puts people off to this day is the bizarre title, which is especially strange given that Friedkin’s previous film was called The Exorcist.
Some audiences might have been forgiven for thinking that this was a film along similar lines, especially as the credits shared the same font and the opening of both films feature creepy stone carvings.
Friedkin has said that the title came from a scout visit to Ecuador (where he had originally planned to shoot), where he noticed that trucks that were given names, including Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) and Lazarus, which he wrestled with for the title.
Both were better than his his original choice of ‘Ballbreaker’, which prompted the head of Universal Lew Wasserman to say: “are you fucking crazy?!”
Perhaps rights issues have also got in the way of a decent home release, with neither Universal or Paramount willing to devote the necessary time or money for a restoration.
The last official DVD release is from 1998 and it is unfortunately cropped to 4:3, even though it was originally shot in 1:85.
This is a hangover from the VHS era where some directors – such as Friedkin – preferred their widescreen films to be shown ‘full-frame’.
Earlier this year in a Q and A at the American Cinematheque, Friedkin hinted that he might do a Blu-ray release after he’s finished working on his latest film Killer Joe (2011).
It certainly is a film which has its admirers, most notably Stephen King who wrote an Entertainment Weekly column in 2009 singing its praises:
“Desperate men with nothing to lose set out in a truck convoy through the South American jungle. Their cargo is rotting dynamite sweating nitro, stuff so unstable the least bump may set it off. The original, Wages of Fear, is considered one of the greatest movies of the modern age, but I have a sneaking preference for Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake. Roy Scheider had two great roles: Chief Brody in Jaws and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer. These films generate suspense through beautiful simplicity.”
Screenwriter Josh Olsen is also a big fan of the film, as he describes in this Trailers from Hell video and hosted the aforementioned Q and A with Friedkin back in January.
With widescreen now ubiquitous in the home, perhaps it is time for a proper release of Sorcerer.
> Sorcerer at the IMDB
> William Friedkin at Wikipedia and MUBi