Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

sorcererWilliam Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a wild journey into darkness that shares much with Apocalypse Now‘s nightmarish sensibilities. Four men are forced to flee civilisation in order to escape punishment for their crimes and they wind up in some hellish, unnamed South American country teetering on the brink of revolution, in a village being reclaimed by the Jungle from which it was torn. A world being washed away by the rain and buried in the mud. The only possible escape these men have is a near-suicidal journey driving two trucks over two hundred miles through dense wild jungle, each truck carrying loads of dangerously unstable old nitroglycerine which is needed to blow out an oil refinery blaze. A journey from darkness into darkness, from Hell into Hell.  The film’s conclusion feels as bleak and inevitable as the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing. A pleasant and jolly film this is not.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not fair too well when it was released during the summer of Star Wars in 1977. Indeed, it was as doomed as the four protagonists it features- that summer, audiences wanted escape and a positive, life-affirming message. They didn’t want the nihilism of Sorcerer and simply abandoned it, the film becoming a notorious financial disaster. The film suffered a similar fate to Blade Runner and The Thing five years later, when they were released during the summer of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial calling home – but I think like those two films, Sorcerer has benefited from some kind of reappraisal over the years. Its not a perfect film; its messy and unfocused and often gratuitous in an almost adolescent way, but I found it absolutely fascinating and very disturbing.

Its a very intense film, with a nightmarish feeling akin to Adrian Lyne’s  Jacobs Ladder, or the dread inevitability of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: I’m not at all surprised by readings of the film that consider the four protagonists literally in Hell, suffering for their sins. Its unrelentingly grim, and not one of the four protagonist’s stories ends well: this, in the summer of Star Wars? In hindsight, the fate of the film seems inevitable.

The bridge sequence, in which the trucks try to cross a river in a terrible storm over a dangerously unsafe rope-bridge is incredibly well realised, particularly as it dates from a pre-CGI era.  You can almost feel the wind and the rain of the storm and share the nervous terror of the protagonists as the bridge threatens to collapse. What it must have been like watching that in the cinema back then…. how intense that must have felt. And of course, how incredibly difficult filming it. Watching Sorcerer was the nearest thing to watching Apocalypse Now, aghast at the obvious horror it must have been making it: at least with Coppola’s film the hard work must have seemed worth it, vindicated by the critical and popular response to the film on its release. How crushing it must have seemed for those behind Sorcerer when all that work seemed wasted upon the films critical and popular failure. 

In any case, the sheer insanity of the film, its almost delirious sense of unrelenting nightmare, well, I found it quite an almost perverse pleasure. They certainly don’t make films like this anymore. 



5 thoughts on “Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

    1. That reminds me of the days before video, going to repeat showings of a movie when we used to expect to wait three years or more before ever getting chance of seeing it again. These days they are lucky to get me into a cinema even once. As you’re possibly the only person I’ll ever know who actually saw it at the cinema, what was that bridge sequence like in the cinema? Pretty intense I expect.

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    You didn’t mention that it was a remake of The Wages Of Fear, and that’s part of the problem: it’s a completely unnecessary movie that pales by comparison.

    The whole opening section with the backstories of the characters is pointless and confusing, and adds nothing. The rest is just an update with added contemporary cynicism and misery – again, that adds nothing to the basic cynicism of the original.

    It’s occasionally interesting and the sweatiness and griminess is effective, but it’s not a lost classic by any means. I’d say it’s more like 82’s Conan than the two films you mentioned.

    1. I think that’s the issue with Sorcerer- if you compare it to Wages of Fear its doomed to failure, but I think it deserves a seperate existence/consideration for all its faults, if only for its sheer audacity.

      Regards the opening section, your views seem to have been shared by the studio, as I’ve read that the original UK (possibly International) release had that entire section cut and placed into the film as flashbacks, which I imagine would have been even worse, destroying any pacing at all. Restoring the opening per Friedkin’s wishes on the worldwide Blu-ray releases and TV airings (which is where I caught it, on Film 4), the film does have a strange detached quality, likely not deliberate, but a flashback at the end of the film as Roy Scheider’s character nears the end of the road (literally) did have the strange effect of making me wonder if he ever walked away from that post-heist car crash at all. I appreciate its just a case of the viewer inputting more than intended, but I’ve found I was not alone in seeing another, Jacobs Ladder-like reading of the film. Seeing it that way, the South American section and the journey across the Jungle has another meaning (the burning, out of control oil refinery ;literally suggesting the flames of Hell that they are travelling to). Mind, thats a bit like how one can re-interpret The Grey post-Air crash too.

      My point about Blade Runner and The Thing was more to do with how their darkness was ill-timed with audiences in just the same way as Sorcerer in 1977’s summer of space fantasy, I’m certainly not suggesting that Sorcerer is as good as either of those. Conan, remember, was something of a box-office success in 1982, which as a REH purist horrified me at the time (my mood has softened much with regards the MIlius film over the years since).

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