“Sorcerer”: A transformational film gets a restoration

I read that William Friedkin, director of such influential 1970s films as “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” is to receive a lifetime achievement award at the upcoming Venice International Film Festival, an honor well-deserved (he was nominated for Best Director by the Academy for both movies, winning the Oscar for the former.) Friedkin was also the director of one of my favorite movies, a nail-biting thriller called “Sorcerer” which will debut in restored condition at the same Venice festival. Given that Friedkin claimed this particular film was his “most personal” and “the most difficult to achieve” it would be a real treat to take in a completely restored version shown on a shimmering screen near the canals of one of the world’s oldest and greatest cities. Roy Scheider’s performance is powerful; the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is haunting.

The movie grabs the viewer right away by breaking the shop-worn rules of modern Hollywood plot-construction and revealing in quick succession four unrelated vignettes involving violence committed on the part of four seemingly incompatible characters: a small-time thief, an Arab terrorist, a cold-hearted assassin, and a well-to-do French banker. The vignettes end badly for the four men, compelling each to abandon their existing lives and take up new ones in a corner of the world where people go to lose their identities – in this case, an oil-rich swath of remote jungle in Central America. The foursome suffers serious indignity at the hands of the colonialist oil company that employs them to conduct decidedly dangerous work, and the corrupt police who maintain control of the rag-tag town of ex-pats through extortion and punishment. Each man dreams of escaping the hellhole and starting a new, anonymous life, but the cost is prohibitive, especially on the paltry wages they receive digging trenches and laying pipe. Then one day some anarchists blow up an oil well which creates a fountain of uncontrollable fire; according to the experts the only way to extinguish the blaze is to produce an explosion huge enough to snuff it out. Suddenly an opportunity for egress presents itself. The oil company knows of the existence of some really old nitro-glycerin stashed in a far-away mountain armory that might do the trick – the problem is that the nitro is so god-damned old and volatile that merely shaking it too vigorously could cause an explosion. Moving it a mere 100 feet let alone all the way down the mountain would seem suicidal, but for the four desperate souls looking to get out of the jungle the risk is worth the reward.

And so the action begins. And what action. You’ll have to view the film for yourself to get the full effect, but suffice to say that the four men paired up into two teams are plenty resourceful. The most amazing scene in the movie comes when the two teams, each driving a huge, crazy-looking customized military vehicle, must cross a feeble rope-bridge designed for pedestrian traffic (barely). Unbelievable stuff.

To make the crossing seem tensely realistic, Friedkin hired set-designer John Box to create a hydraulically operated bridge at a cost of $1 million. Another $3 million was invested in the scene after the river ran dry during a drought just as filming was to proceed, requiring the specially-designed bridge to be disassembled and moved to another shooting location. All-in-all, the 12 minute scene took several months to complete and consumed a big portion of the budget – yet every second of screen time was worth it.

Or was it?

“Sorcerer” came out just a month after the premier of “Star Wars,” and while Friedkin had been overseeing the construction of a real rope bridge over a real raging river to be crossed by real multi-ton trucks (which sometimes toppled from the bridge and had to be pulled from the river for take 2), George Lucas had been filming exterior action on a tiny plastic model spaceship using miniature cameras in the quiet of studio in sunny California. And while “Sorcerer” delved into the depths a man must descend in order to extricate himself from his personally-inflicted hell-on-Earth, “Star Wars” presented nothing more than a Western in a galaxy far, far from Earth. Still, “Star Wars” completely obliterated “Sorcerer” at the box office. And I mean completely. “Sorcerer” opened at the box office to the tune of $5.9 million; “Star Wars” did $36 million on 2,000+ screens. It went on to do north of $4 billion in all its fugly sequellian incarnations.

It’s possible that the financial success of “Star Wars” juxtapositioned with the flopping of “Sorcerer” marked the dividing line between the end of the New Hollywood cinema movement and the beginning of the insipid Blockbuster era that we now regularly suffer through (2013 being a banner year .) But such is life.

“Sorcerer” is a great flick, period. I hope I can finagle a trip to Venice next month to catch a screening along with a whiff of the stench emanating from the Venetian lagoon so as to remind me where I am.

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