Blu-ray Review: William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’

by Christopher Heard

Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri

Let me state right off the top that I believe William Friedkin’s film Sorcerer is not only one of his best films but probably one of the most overlooked films of the classic packed era of the 70s. This tough, relentless adventure film is both epic in scope and claustrophobic and intense at the same time and for decades (part of the reason it is so overlooked is that it was released almost exactly as Star Wars hit the theatres in 1977) this film had not been given a proper home video release because of rights issues between the two studios that financed the movie.

Now, finally, Warner Bros. Home Video has released a pristine Blu-ray edition of the film and William Friedkin supervised the transfer himself.

At the time he made Sorcerer, William Friedkin was flying high, coming off two back to back Oscar winning mega-hits: The French Connection and The Exorcist. Friedkin wanted to up the ante and boldly take one of his favourite French films, The Wages of Fear from director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and respectfully give it a kick-ass American make-over.

The story concerns four criminals from different parts of the world: a Mexican hitman, a Palestinian terrorist, a French banker who defrauded his family owned bank, and a Irish gangster from New York, who all find themselves hiding out in a South American jungle village working in an oil field. After an oil rig explodes igniting an oil fire that won’t go out, the oil company hires four volunteers to drive two trucks filled with nitro-glycerine two hundred miles into the jungle to be used to blow out the oil rig fire–the journey is so dangerous that it is expected only one of the trucks will actually make it.

Friedkin’s shoot was fraught with problems because of the jungle locations and the very difficult logistics involved. There is one harrowing sequence that you simply hold your breath through as the trucks traverse a swaying rope bridge across a raging jungle river in the middle of a typhoon! And he choose to shoot lengthy introductions to his main characters at the beginning of the film in their own languages–so we are practically twenty minutes deep into this American studio movie before the first word of English is spoken–which so confused movie-goers during its original release that the studio needed to print up special posters for display outside the theatres assuring patrons that is was not a “foreign” film.

And then there is that title, Sorcerer, which also confused people–especially since Friedkin was just coming off The Exorcist, it was assumed by many that this was another tale of the supernatural, but in fact Sorcerer is the name Roy Scheider’s character paints on the side of his truck (and Friedkin and writer Walon Green said the title referred to fate). Given all of this Mr. Friedkin certainly didn’t make it easy for himself on this one–then having its release date coincide exactly with the game changing Star Wars… I guess it was that Sorcerer‘s fate at work again.

Friedkin complained at the time that he did not get the cast he wanted from for the film, but the cast he got ended up being perfect. Originally the King of Cool, super badass Steve McQueen had committed to the film and he would have been fantastic – but then marital problems caused McQueen to make a ridiculous request of Friedkin and writer Walon Green (he wanted them to write a part into the picture for his wife Ali McGraw – the model gorgeous actress – so he would not have to spend time away from her–that would have destroyed the movie and everyone knew it). When McQueen dropped out a top Spanish actor and a French star also dropped out because they had signed on to work with McQueen. In place of McQueen Friedkin cast his friend Roy Scheider whom Friedkin gave a big break to in casting him opposite Gene Hackman in French Connection (he was then cast as Chief Brody in Jaws by Spielberg) and he was a good, solid actor whose rough looks ended up making him perfect in Sorcerer even though Friedkin said he cast Roy as a last resort to get the picture moving.

This new Blu-ray edition is short on extras but that is scarcely the point–the point here is that this film has finally been given a home video release that gives it the respect it deserves. Visually it is fantastically sharp and the sound, something that was very important to conveying the atmosphere of this film, is better than it was during its cinema release.

The eerie and awesome music provided by Tangerine Dream (their first soundtrack) is also made even better here. Friedkin came across Tangerine Dream in Europe when he was promoting The Exorcist–he asked them if they would score his next film, Sorcerer. He sent them the screenplay then a few months while on location in a remote part of the Dominican Republic a box of tapes arrived to him–Tangerine Dream had scored the entire movie based on the screenplay without seeing a foot of film–and it was fantastic.

I often rant and rave on my love for that wonderful epoch of American cinema, the 70s, that produced so many classics, but what I love even more about the 70s is that there are just as many gems from that era out there that are unsung, under-appreciated, and just waiting for new life in our new digitalized home theatre world–on that wish list Sorcerer has been lodged in my Number One spot for years and now thanks to the diligence and perseverance of William Friedkin and Warner Bros. Home Video–the wait is over!

Sorcerer - Lobby notice

Sorcerer – Lobby notice

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