The Summer Movie Road Not Taken

1977’s Sorceror was the antithesis of Star Wars, and we could learn from it

Michael Atkinson May 29, 2014

William Friedkin’s unfairly maligned Sorcerer, now out on Blu-ray, is finally getting its due. (Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers)

As the sum­mer” movie sea­son expands to con­sume 50 per­cent of the year, and the the­aters become over­run with CGI fan­boy refuse, you will do no bet­ter in movie terms than to seek out a 37-year-old Hol­ly­wood film just recent­ly restored and Blu-ray-ed, a film so rich with naked nerve and eye-jolt­ing real­ism that it could refash­ion your ideas about Amer­i­can movies. William Friedkin’s Sor­cer­er (1977) was a bomb in its ini­tial release, and hasn’t been com­mon­ly regard­ed as any­thing but in the decades since. All the same, it ful­fills every promise the Amer­i­can New Wave era ever made to grown-ups, in ways that are almost the exact oppo­site of its 1977 block­buster-for-pre­pubes antithe­sis: Star Wars.

Show some 21st-century kids, raised on patently fake Spider-Man swooshes and Avatar rainbows, the trucks-on-the-rope-bridge-in-a-monsoon sequence from Sorcerer, top to bottom, and watch their jaws swing open like trap doors.

Two trucks, a load of sweaty nitro-glyc­er­ine, a dis­tant oil fire, and a bajil­lion miles of unpaved South Amer­i­can jun­gle hell­hole road­way. How much mon­ey would they have to pay you, or how hope­less would you have to be, to take the job to dri­ve the unsta­ble explo­sives through the impos­si­ble land­scape in order to blow out the ram­pag­ing well fire? Hired by the oil com­pa­ny, the four men who accept the offer are dis­pos­able out­laws in hid­ing with noth­ing left to lose: an Amer­i­can hold-up man (Roy Schei­der), an Arab ter­ror­ist (Ami­dou), a French bank embez­zler (Bruno Cre­mer), and an assas­sin of unknown ori­gin (Fran­cis­co Rabal). The sce­nario, from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 nov­el and Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film The Wages of Fear, is a loaded can­non, built to bruise, armed with a fresh kind of No Exit action set­up that no pulp, not even film noir, had ever come close to. This was fic­tion, and cin­e­ma, of hope­less pro­ce­dure, of sui­ci­dal tribu­la­tion, anchored in the real world of indus­try and pover­ty. Clouzot’s ver­sion, bear­ing a clas­sic sta­tus that pegged Friedkin’s remake as an act of hubris, is ham­my and stuffed with back-pro­jec­tion. It has noth­ing on the car­bon odor of emer­gency in Friedkin’s film, which remains a jugu­lar ordeal that no amount of ver­tig­i­nous CGI fart-noise will ever approximate.

That’s because it’s real. Rid­ing as high as an auteur could after The French Con­nec­tion (1971) and The Exor­cist (1973), Fried­kin went deep on loca­tion into the Domini­can Repub­lic for­est, spend­ing like a drunk­en sailor and wrestling with nature itself, gen­er­at­ing a vibe so caus­tic and arrest­ing that when I saw it in the the­ater as a kid, I remem­ber think­ing that Hol­ly­wood movies were becom­ing dan­ger­ous and mature and dar­ing, and wasn’t I lucky to have a front-row seat.

Zoom­ing space­ships were nice, but Friedkin’s voy­age to some­where you weren’t sure cam­eras were even sup­posed to go had me snook­ered. Put it to the test today: Show some 21st-cen­tu­ry kids, raised on patent­ly fake Spi­der-Man swoosh­es and Avatar rain­bows, the trucks-on-the-rope-bridge-in-a-mon­soon sequence from Sor­cer­er, top to bot­tom, and watch their jaws swing open like trap doors.

The vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence of the film gains every­thing by being some­thing you can­not doubt. Think of the last recent Amer­i­can movie you could say that about. I was essen­tial­ly cor­rect, sit­ting there in my mid-teens and awed by Friedkin’s jun­gle boo­gie: Amer­i­can movies had grown up. But of course it didn’t last. For those of us with an emo­tion­al-his­tor­i­cal stake in such things, George Lucas’ inven­tion of the kid-direct­ed F/X block­buster that same year was like a descent of the Dark Ages, a de-mat­u­ra­tion of the century’s most viva­cious art form, just as it was gath­er­ing steam. It’s only got­ten worse in time. In a the­ater this April, I was served trail­ers for six sum­mer films (The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man 2, Trans­form­ers: Age of Extinc­tion, etc.) and saw the future of movies: There was noth­ing onscreen a 12-year-old wouldn’t under­stand, and noth­ing that wasn’t a mat­ter of stu­pid, fake visu­al mas­sive­ness. We’re all being reduced to a pre­teen point of view and a sixth-grade menu of experiences.

A rad­i­cal inter­ven­tion may be required, and in movie form I can’t think of any as tough-mind­ed and res­o­nant as Sor­cer­er. For years the film was mal­treat­ed by its stu­dios, com­ing to broad­cast and video only in a fad­ed ver­sion with a third of the pic­ture lost to TV for­mat­ting. Fried­kin him­self has shep­herd­ed this new restora­tion, as a kind of cap­stone to his long and stormy career. Now, no mat­ter how juve­nile new movies become, it’ll be there for those of us look­ing for stronger drink.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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