Sorcerer ★★★★½

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Back in 1977, sometime between May 25th and June 24th, the world went crazy. It was a mania that had been brewing for at least two years, since the summer '75 release of Jaws. But on May 25th, a Wednesday, it took full hold. Star Wars opened, and movies changed forever. (And here's something surprising, Star Wars was a limited release, at first playing in only 43 theatres. It wouldn't be until July of that year when it finally went into wide release.)

But I'm here to talk about Sorcerer, the movie that opened on Friday June 25th, 1977. By that time the insanity had fully gripped the movie-going public. Star Wars had already drawn in millions of dollars, eight figures and growing, and it's grosses were going up most weeks. And into this onslaught Sorcerer opened. It didn't have a chance.

It failed theatrically and it failed big. Even the title, Sorcerer was problematic. Director William Freidkin was still associated with The Exorcist so a mystical title was considered misleading (and really, so is the opening shot, focusing on a ancient stone face carved into a wall, reminding one of the archaeological dig sequence of the earlier film.) Some posters had the phrase "Not a film about the supernatural" written on them.

But there was much more. The movie had production problems, needed re-shoots and even the director of photography was replaced. Friedkin's dream cast that included Steve McQueen and Marcelo Mastroianni never took shape (McQueen didn't want to be apart from Ali McGraw for months on end, and Friedkin wouldn't give her a producer credit so she could tag along). The budget got big, and then bigger to the point where two studios (Universal and Paramount) ended up footing the bill. In the end Sorcerer would cost around $22 million, or about double what Star Wars did. It went on to make around $15 million (though its totals are not listed on Box Office Mojo, rather unsurprisingly). Star Wars made $775 million or about 52 times more than Sorcerer. All in all, it was a complete and utter clusterfuck.

But damn if it isn't a great film. It's a remake of The Wages of Fear, and while it's been too long since I've seen the original to choose between the two, I have to say that I would likely be hard-pressed to do so. Roy Scheider stars as one of four men who find themselves in a South American village, at the proverbial end of the earth. They are all here by choice, the choice being that they had no other choice. A getaway driver, a disgraced businessman, a terrorist, a killer, and they are are so desperate that when the opportunity to make decent money arises they take it, even though it is tantamount to suicide.

An oil well in the jungle has exploded. It is still burning. To put it out dynamite is needed. The only dynamite available is old, and it is very unstable. It needs to be driven to the burning well over hundreds of miles of bumpy roads. Drivers are needed. These men all apply.

I've always thought that it's a great set-up. A true edge of your seat movie as the audience waits for the bombs to blow at any moment. It is a brilliant concept. And Friedkin does it proud. There are moments where the four disparate men are forced to work together, where you think that maybe they will all make it, and then there are moments of sheer terror filled with high mountain roads and the ricketiest of bridges where you think none of them will. And with every bump, every jostle, every shake the camera jumps to the back of each truck and focuses on the boxes of dynamite, half-buried in sand, and you see them and wonder how much movement can they take. It's a frightening ride. And it took my breath away more than once.

The characters are almost secondary to the story, but Friedkin gives them some background, makes them more than the descriptions I gave them earlier. There are good moments in between them, moments that remind us these people are humans, criminals yes, but you can't help but caring about what happens to them, and when they are trying to climb up through a hole in a bridge in the rainiest of rainstorms you hope, hell you almost pray to the movie gods that, please, please don't let that guy be run over. No one deserves that.

And the movie is full of moments like that. It isn't all perfect. The last 10 minutes are a mixed bag I haven't really decided whether I liked or not (though still full of great imagery). But the movie deserved a better fate than it got.

Here's how far the craziness went in 1977 : Today movies like Star Wars get nominated for all the technical Academy Awards and that's pretty much it, but in '77 Star Wars was nominated for 10 awards. Sure it had the technical awards covered, but it was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Director, and Best Picture. At least Sorcerer got one nomination. It was for Best Sound.

I won't even bother telling you the film it lost to.

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