Not to fall into that macho Hemingway bit, but I have to ask: Could it be that the effort it takes to do something that’s difficult often results in that thing being done better than if it had been easy? William Friedkin’s jungle-location triumph/boondoggle Sorcerer trumps today’s event filmmaking with every mud puddle and pit stain, with rain- and sweat-streaked actors who never look like they’ve just swanned from the trailer to the green screen. In the last hour, plug-uglies played by Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou drive trucks full of ready-to-blow unstable dynamite over South American mountains for story reasons that don’t much matter; it’s all terrified eyes boiling in stoic-faced men as mud-caked wheels skirt crumbling cliff sides, each shot like something Friedkin had to hack out of the rainforest.
The celebrated centerpiece involves heavy trucks trudging over a rickety wood-and-rope bridge as the heavens rage. Planks snap, the bridge sags to just above a surging river, and the trucks at times tilt to a seasick 45 degrees, all while one of the film’s hard-bitten antiheroes hunches down by the front tires, hollering over lashes of rain just how the driver should adjust the wheel to move a foot or two farther along. A board giving way here has a calamitous urgency that the destruction of cities can’t match in today’s epic movies.
Friedkin, a big talker, has said that scene took three months and cost a million bucks. He might be exaggerating, but certainly some degree of obsessive hard work is key to its standing as one the most harrowing suspense sequences in all cinema. Watching it, squirming along with each inch gained, caught up in the brute physics of ropes and wind and tonnage, you know that at some level you are watching the result of work just as laborious and almost as foolhardy as what’s being depicted. Difference is, the characters’ work, unlike the director’s, proves meaningless. Sorcerer is grimly existential, one of those pessimistic stories where men work hard and gain nothing, a tough-guy fantasy as steeped in vintage men’s adventure magazines as it is in the French film it adapts, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Friedkin’s characters may not have much to show afterward, but Friedkin does: the lost gem, the rediscovered masterwork, the evidence that the guy everyone thought had lost it was right all along.
A legend like that has a lot of weight to bear, and Sorcerer itself, now in re-release and recently issued on Blu-Ray, holds up, and without looking like it’s about to snap the way that bridge does. Still, the legend seems off on some particulars. Sorcerer‘s PR campaign is pinned on the irony that this great, somewhat grown-up adventure film flopped within a month of the release of Star Wars, a movie that, in these tellings, stands as a bleak cosmic punch line: If it hadn’t been for Lucas and his pew-pew Muppets, Hollywood would have kept right on truckin’ with distinctive curios like Sorcerer.
But Sorcerer itself, and ’70s Hollywood, had already trucked off its own cliff, and not just because of delays, budget troubles, the hugeness of the production, or Friedkin’s fights with the studios; he insisted on casting Scheider as the only principle American character — and then making him a gangster prick who holds up church bingos. The movie is defiantly unapproachable, opening with four violent backstories, each unrelated, not all engaging, taking place in four different countries and languages, before getting Scheider to the South American hellhole in which he’ll have his adventure. Then there’s the wrenching, wonderful interludes tracking how a multinational oil company has ravaged said hellhole’s population, building to a peasant riot that stands as one of Friedkin’s greatest achievements, and as an astonishment in a PG-rated studio picture. And then, at last, Sorcerer gets down to its transport-the-dynamite plot, a story hook only a couple notches less cartoonish than Star Wars‘ princess rescuing. (It was ripped off for an A-Team episode just a few years later.)
It’s hard to say the world was wrong to prefer exploding Death Stars. But like the extravaganza critics today pit it against, Sorcerer, while thrilling in many particulars, is still filled with hokum, is still steeped in nostalgia, and is still first and foremost a lavish entertainment, no matter its brief examination of oil politics. It’s still more about the movies than about life or ideas; it’s just about a different kind of movie than our movies are about today, maybe a movie about nothing more than how hard it is to make a movie.
At least it’s distinguished by all that work, by that feeling of a filmmaker and an audience down in the muck with the heroes. Still, even if Star Wars had gone Heaven’s Gate, William Friedkin would never be given a blank check again, no matter that he had directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. Unlike the drivers Sorcerer tracks, Friedkin didn’t quite risk killing himself to meet his mad goals — but he did take some investors down with him. It’s not a tragedy that there aren’t more Sorcerers, but it is a miracle that there is this one.