The Insane Willpower of the Damned in William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’

Forty years since its nearly aborted release, ‘Sorcerer’ is the foolish adventure film for our time.
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on June 21st, 2017

Four monstrous wretches condemn themselves to a South American hellscape and immediately seek freedom from the prison of their own making. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is often mislabeled as a nihilistic nightmare of fate, but forty years after its unfortunate release in the shadow of Star Wars I cannot help but find inspiration from the unrelenting willpower of its doomed heroes. Here is a narrative that constantly spits in the face of its players, taunts them to go forth, and happily tortures them as they stubbornly march into the abyss. Why go on? Shouldn’t we all just get it over with and eat a gun? That arrogance to continue down the path of probable disaster is what keeps the human adventure thriving. Call it ego, spirit, bravery, or simple terror of the end; Sorcerer ultimately has no place for heroes or villains. Here is a celebration of the desperate.

After the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin could have made any damn film he wanted. In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, he found a world fueled by cooperation in the face of hatred. The director saw an opportunity to heighten the plights of the fallen into a microcosm metaphor for how all us idiots dare to exist with one another. Unfortunately, The New Hollywood era that began with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde was left mauled by Jaws and completely obliterated by the Death Star. As our own Natalie Mokry elaborated earlier this week, the Blockbuster had arrived and there was no more room for an existential thriller.

The film opens with a shattering synth attack from the German techno collective, Tangerine Dream. Above a Latin American totem that bares a striking resemblance to The Exorcist’s Pazuzu, the title card slashes across the screen in bold, white, brush-stroke lettering. Sorcerer relishes in the introductions for its four exiled protagonists with a series of vignettes detailing how each cretin sinned their way down south. Francisco Rabal’s hit man steps into an apartment in Vera Cruz and fires two silenced shots into the tenant. In Jerusalem, Amidou’s terrorist goes undercover to ignite an explosion among the crowded streets. Bruno Cremer’s doting husband flees officials in Paris before he can be arrested for his fraudulent business practices. Finally, in New Jersey, Roy Scheider narrowly escapes death after stealing pennies from a mob card game. Each man is simply looking to carve a place in this world for himself and fails miserably.

With what little cash they have squirreled away, each of the four buy their way into the protection of a remote South American village. There they spend their days trapped in minuscule labor, shots of questionable liquor being their only vomitus refreshment. Respite from damnation will come in the form of an old-age Nazi death or execution from corrupt government henchmen. Unseen from the powerful, this level of self-inflicted incarceration was never designed to be temporary. Here, men must climb from the tomb or sink further.

When an oil rig is sabotaged in the night, an uncontrollable blaze spews forth from the earth. Looking to fight fire with fire, the American Oil Company seeks volunteers to haul unstable dynamite from their base of operations two hundred miles away. Enter our four despicable outcasts. Desperate enough to take on such a suicidal mission, they climb into two titanic trucks packed with wobbly nitroglycerin. Their journey is a nearly mythic quest that allows Friedkin to wallow in tension.

To say that Sorcerer’s film shoot was intense is a laughable understatement. Originally conceived as a two and half-million-dollar mini-movie before taking on the drastic (never formed) genre picture The Devil’s Triangle, Sorcerer ballooned in budget from fifteen to twenty million dollars. This ultimately resulted in the partnership between Paramount and Universal Pictures to get the job done. He battled it out with his cinematographer, swatted off teamsters, and fought to wrangle a cast together. Shot primarily in the Dominican Republic, Friedkin was unable to convince star Steve McQueen to join him in the jungles outside of the United States, and French Connection alum Scheider was eventually selected for the primary lead. Who knows if this had any lasting result on the box office – nothing was going to fight through the swarm of Star Wars’ success.

Scheider’s face practically defines the manner of performance we cineastes are so desperate to laud from the 1970s. Surrounded by the soft, beautiful smiles of modern actors like Chris Pine, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth (hashtag your favorite Chris!), Scheider’s mug immediately cements a level of reality for a contemporary audience. Here is a player incapable of inauthenticity, and experiencing the plight of his heavy makes you question the level of manufactured truth we so willingly accept on today’s platform. This is the flawed human battling the light and the dark inside, and his will to survive is a haunting reminder of our own mortality.

Sorcerer would have been lost to time if not for the director himself. While the film had gained some notoriety in cult circles, most had only experienced an extreme edit (or a “butchered version” as Friedkin himself chastises in his letter that accompanies the recent 4K Blu-ray release). Here is a deeply personal work of art, and one that its creator vehemently believes in decades after its floundering distribution. Forty years have passed, and the current form available to you on disc or on demand is one that simply exists because Friedkin warred for the rights. He found relief in Warner Home Video (the third studio involved in the lifespan of Sorcerer), and the film is being rediscovered – or actually discovered for the first time.

In an era when event cinema bleeds beyond the borders of the summer season, but still fails to provide the head-in-the-sand escape we all seem to be desperately craving in this horrendous political climate, the appeal of Sorcerer is witnessing the will to live in the face of utter despair. I am not sure I have it in me to assault the elements or to challenge the monsters around me, but I look to Friedkin’s rescued saga for the hope that it is possible. Even the lowliest of creatures will communicate with their fellow bottom feeders to combat inevitable doom.

Related Topics: , ,

Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)