A few months ago, we did a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about our personal favourite box office bombs of all time, and I briefly made mention of a film which tanked at the box office 35 years ago. Its original box office numbers may not look all that bad today, but at the time, it was considered to be one of the biggest flops to ever come out of Hollywood. Our podcast drove home the message that not all box office bombs are bad moveis, and that philosophy would certainly apply to William Friedkin’s 1977 jungle adventure, Sorcerer. The film’s lack of success came as a big blow to Friedkin, who had become one of the most successful directors in Hollywood in the 1970s. The French Connection had won him an Academy Award for “Best Director” and took home “Best Picture” in 1971, and, of course, The Exorcist was an absolute sensation, which held the title of highest-grossing film of all time for two years until Jaws came out. Friedkin waited four years to direct his follow-up project and decided to do a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acclaimed 1953 French thriller, The Wages of Fear. Sorcerer had quite a troubled production history and wound up costing $22 million, which was quite a huge budget at the time, and was only able to recoup just over half of that sum when it grossed $12 million at the box office. Friedkin was quite devastated by the failure of Sorcerer since he still considers it to be his very best film, but it has developed a cult following over the years and holds up pretty well today. There are many reasons why Sorcerer did not do well on its initial release, but one of them might have been the film’s very misleading title. This trailer probably could have used a disclaimer at the end: “Warning: May not contain actual sorcerers”.
The opening act of Sorcerer introduces the viewer to four characters whose criminal activities have forced them to flee their respective countries. The main protagonist is Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a small-time gangster from New Jersey who winds up with a bounty on his head after partcipating in a heist where the brother of a powerful mafia kingpin is killed. We also meet a French banker named Victor Manzon (Bruno Manzon), who is on the run for fraud, a Mexican hitman named Nilo (Francisco Rabal), and a Palestinian political terrorist named Kassem (Amidou). They all assume new identities and find residence in a remote village in Nicaragua which, quite frankly, is such a shithole that the only reason an outsider would choose to live there is if they were hiding. The area’s entire economy is dependent on the presence of a major American oil company, but disaster strikes when one of their oil wells catches fire. It is determined that the only way to extinguish the massive fire is by using explosives, but their only means of doing this is with an old cache of dynamite which has been improperly stored and is starting to leak nitroglycerin. The dynamite needs to be transported over 200 miles by truck to the burning oil well, but the shipment is so unstable that the slightest shock 0r vibration could cause a massive explosion. The oil company offers a lot of money to anyone who is willing to drive the two trucks full of explosive dynamite, and, of course, the four criminals are so anxious for a chance to leave the village that they accept the extremely dangerous mission.
Well, as you probably guessed already, this film has nothing to do with magic or fantasy, which is why the title, Sorcerer, confused many viewers. William Friedkin has always claimed that he chose it because a sorcerer is an evil wizard, and that in this story, the evil wizard was fate. “Sorcerer” is painted in Spanish on the side of the truck that Scanlon drives, which is the only mention of the word in the film at all. Of course, the title wasn’t the only reason that Sorcerer fared poorly at the box office. You may have heard of a little film that was released in 1977 called Star Wars. When a movie becomes a pop culture phenomenon and smashes all box office records, there are going to be other movies playing in theaters at the same time which wind up suffering, and unfortunately for Sorcerer, it happened to be one of the sacrificial lambs. When one theater in San Francisco decided to replace Star Wars with Sorcerer, the film wound up doing such bad business that the theater yanked it after a week and brought Star Wars back. It’s obvious that audiences were just not in the mood to see a grim, cynical film like Sorcerer while Star Wars fever was sweeping the nation. One of the key differences between The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer is that only one of the four main characters in the original film was a criminal in hiding, whereas in Sorcerer, they all are. It’s pretty much established at the outset that these characters are not exactly model citizens, but the genius of Sorcerer is that puts them all in such a nightmarish scenario that it’s hard not to root for them. Once the characters finally get behind the wheel of the two dynamite-filled trucks, the tension never lets up as it becomes clear that the slightest miscalculation could lead to their fiery deaths. The most famous sequence in Sorcerer involves the characters driving the trucks over a rickety rope-suspension bridge in the middle of a rainstorm, which remains one of the suspenseful scenes ever put on film.
One of the reasons that sequence just oozes tension is probably because it was an absolute nightmare to film, as the truck actually did tip over into the river several times during shooting. This, along with a hurricane that completely wiped out one of the sets, is just one of the many reasons that Sorcerer wound up going way over budget. Most of the scenes were shot in the Dominican Republic in locations which were apparently just as miserable as they look on film, and it’s easy to understand why anyone who was forced to live in those conditions would jump at the chance to accept such a dangerous mission. It’s only appropriate that Friedkin would consider “fate is evil” to be the main theme of Sorcerer since uncontrollable fate wound up causing many problems for the film’s production and its theatrical release as well. This theme is effectively conveyed in the film as the characters are forced to face difficult challenges and survive many grueling ordeals, yet their undoing is often caused by very simple events. Sorcerer features one of the best performances of Roy Scheider’s career as he takes what could have been a very one-dimensional, underdeveloped character and finds great depth within him. It’s amazing to see the otherwise self-assured Scanlon gradually lose his mind and deteriorate as the film goes on, and Friedkin caps off the character’s ordeal with a very pessimistic, open-ended conclusion that is still very effective. Sorcerer is also greatly enhanced by a terrific electronic score from Tangerine Dream, which would lead to the group becoming a very sought-after composer for Hollywood films during the 1980s. Of course, some people were quick to dismiss Sorcerer simply because it dared to be a remake of a classic film like The Wages of Fear, but I’m one of the few people who actually believes that Sorcerer is superior. I just think it’s a more exciting, better-paced film overall that adds a very unique perspective to the original material. No one can change Sorcerer‘s original box office numbers, but when you see major Hollywood productions today like Speed Racer and The Green Lantern going over $100 million in the red, it seems ridiculous to dismiss a strong film like Sorcerer just because it was considered a “bomb”.