In Defense of … ‘Sorcerer’
William Friedkin is best known for directing ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist.’ And like several great ‘70s directors, he had a major flop that he never recovered from. The movie: 1977's ‘Sorcerer.’
The film was a large production that was primarily shot in the Dominican Republic, cost a fortune to make at the time ($22 million) and was a huge disaster when it was released on June 24, 1977.
‘Sorcerer’ has gotten a bad rap for years because of its dismal box-office returns and scathing reviews. But don't believe all that bad press. Not only is ‘Sorcerer’ a hell of a film, it’s Friedkin’s best work. And yes, I'm a huge fan of ‘The Exorcist.’
Friedkin was devastated by the commercial failure of ‘Sorcerer’ because he gave everything he had for the film, and the results are clearly onscreen. The movie is a remake of the 1953 French classic ‘The Wages of Fear,’ which was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who also made the terrifying thriller ‘Diabolique.’
'The Wages of Fear' and 'Sorcerer' are both about a group of desperate men hiding out in the jungle who embark on a mission to deliver crates of highly explosive nitro through dangerous and treacherous paths in South America. (‘Sorcerer’ is the name of one of the trucks used to transport the cargo.)
So why did ‘Sorcerer’ fail at the box office? Several reasons have been given over the years. The big one is ‘Star Wars,’ which came out just a month before and pretty much revolutionized the movie industry. ‘Sorcerer’ took so long to make it to the screen that by the time it finally did, things were much different.
Movies in the early part of the ‘70s were much darker and character-driven than anything that came before. It was an era in which films like ‘Five Easy Pieces’ could become huge hits. But with the double blasts of Vietnam and President Nixon’s resignation, audiences began leaning toward lighter and more escapist feel-good movies like ‘Rocky’ and ‘Star Wars.’
Could ‘Sorcerer’ have been another hit for Friedkin if it had come out at a different time? Possibly. So many now-acknowledged classics bombed when they were released. As Andrew Niccol -- the director of another underrated gem, ‘Gattaca’ -- once said, the real reviews for movies are written five to 10 years after the films are released.
It’s certainly taken longer than that for ‘Sorcercer’ to receive some respect. It finally came out on Blu-ray in April, after a few steady years of its reputation growing at revival screenings and from good old-fashioned word of mouth.
As early as 1979, Roger Ebert called 'Sorcerer' “an overlooked classic,” noting that many of the movie’s set pieces were “some of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever seen.” (Ebert was one of the few movie critcs who got 'Sorcerer' when it came out, including it on his Top 10 list in 1977.)
As a fan of Friedkin’s work, I was happy to see his comeback a couple of years ago with ‘Killer Joe.’ I'm even more happy that the great ‘Sorcerer’ is finally getting the respect it deserves.