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Friday, 30 November 2018

The OTHER films of 1977: Star Wars vs Sorcerer

A poster for Sorcerer, 1977

It had a bigger budget than Star Wars, bigger advertising, a bigger-name director and a big star. But William Friedkin’s Sorcerer flopped when it edged its way onto movie screens on June 24 1977, as Star Wars fever was taking hold of America.

In the latest of my occasional series of posts about the other films of 1977, here’s a look at a movie that some have belatedly hailed as a masterpiece.

If you had been reading the New York Times on Sunday May 22 1977, you would have seen a full page ad for Star Wars. Under the artwork showing Luke Skywalker holding his lightsaber aloft, an impossibly glamorous Princess Leia practically lying at his feet, you would learn that the film could be seen from May 25 in 70mm and Dolby System stereophonic sound at various venues in New York and New Jersey.

But in the same edition of the Times, you would have come across a full two-page spread devoted to Universal’s ad for its big upcoming film. Sorcerer was a thriller about a collection of criminals hired for a dangerous mission to drive truckloads of explosives through a South American jungle.

Sorcerer had everything a hit movie was supposed to have.

It had an Oscar-winning director, William Friedkin, who had made two of the biggest films of the 1970s – The French Connection and The Exorcist.

It had a story with a proven track record – Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel which had been filmed in 1953 as The Wages of Fear.

It had a budget of around $21million-$22million – roughly twice that of Star Wars.

It had the star of what was, then, the most successful film of all time: Roy Scheider of Jaws.

And yet it opened to mixed reviews and an almost total lack of public interest.

A generation later, there are a number critics who claim Sorcerer is an overlooked masterpiece. (That’s surely one reason it has an enormously long Wikipedia article.) My own view is that, while sometimes very good, it’s a film that shows why people lapped up entertainment such as Star Wars

The production of Sorcerer – and how different it was from Star Wars

The cast of Sorcerer, 1977

William Friedkin, the producer and director of Sorcerer, was in many ways the opposite of George Lucas. He was exactly the kind of brash, volatile, self-possessed character that Lucas wasn’t.

He was also intensely competitive with his contemporary, and Lucas’s mentor, Francis Ford Coppola.

While Coppola was heading to the jungles of the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now (a film that George Lucas was originally slated to direct), Friedkin headed to South America to make a film that was vastly bigger in scale than his original plan for a $2.5 million movie to tide him over between projects.

Convinced of his own greatness as an auteur, Friedkin drove his crew relentlessly through filming in Paris, Jerusalem, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. The director, who kept a photo of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin on his office wall, was often a tyrant on his set, sacking scores of people including cinematographer Dick Bush, five production, managers and the film’s Teamsters rep. He also hired a convicted arsonist to blow up a huge tree, while several crew members were forced to leave Mexico after being caught with drugs, and around 50 suffered injury or gangrene.

While Friedkin’s behaviour is a world away from that of the taciturn Lucas, and his almost equally quiet producer Gary Kurtz, they did have something common. In their very different ways, they were highly determined and uncompromising.

Sorcerer review: The opposite of Star Wars

The best sequence in Sorcerer, 1977

Plenty of people thought one of the big problems with Sorcerer was its title. It’s a moniker which might well lead you to expect a film about, well, a sorcerer. In fact, Sorcerer is the name scrawled on one of the trucks in the film – a fact which could easily be missed, even by someone who had seen the movie. 

The premise of the film is that an oil company operating in a Latin American country needs to put out a fire, and finds a hugely irresponsible way to do it. It hires a collection of desperate criminals to drive truckloads of highly unstable nitroglycerine through a jungle to the well site.

But if you didn’t know that this was the central idea, it would take you quite a while to find out. Not only does the title fail to give you a clue, but the movie spends a very long time telling us the individual stories of the four protagonists before they meet in the Latin American village or Porvenir. So we see an assassination Mexico, a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, a suicide in Paris and the robbery of a church in New Jersey followed by a car crash, all before the premise of the movie starts to become clear.

Contrast all this with the directness of Star Wars, which promises space battles in the title and delivers one in the opening moments of the film.

Sorcerer is not a movie with a hero to root for. In The French Connection, William Friedkin had given us a story in which the cops were racist, violent and blithely careless about how many innocent lives they put at risk, while the drug-dealing criminal mastermind was urbane and charming. In Sorcerer, his protagonists are an assassin, a terrorist, a fraudster and a robber. Roy Scheider is the star, but his character Jackie is not much more sympathetic than anyone else.

The journey the characters go on, however, is genuinely exciting. And at the heart of a movie is a 12-minute sequence in which the truckers must cross a rickety suspension bridge in a storm, aware that a big enough jolt will blow any of the vehicles, and its occupants, to smithereens. It is hugely suspenseful.

At this point, it’s time for a spoiler warning. When the action is over, Scheider’s Jackie returns to Porvenir, well paid for his accomplishment, and heads to a bar where he finds a woman to dance with. At he does so, some henchmen of his Mafia enemy from New Jersey turn up, and we hear a gunshot as the film ends.

It’s a nihilistic ending. Nobody has benefited from this whole escapade, apart from the corrupt oil company that ordered it. Like so much of the film, it is stylish and audacious, but not emotionally involving.

Cinema in the 1970s had done pretty well out of dark, morally ambiguous movies so far, but by 1977, movie-goers had a choice. Would they go for a story in which killers and gangsters brave a desperately dangerous mission, only for each of them to die unredeemed? Or would they go for a simple, old-fashioned adventure yarn, which took familiar story elements and wedded them to breathtaking visuals? The box office returns gave the answer.

Sorcerer vs Star Wars: release and reviews

A newspaper ad for Sorcerer, 1977

Sorcerer met with almost unanimously bad reviews in 1977. With a handful of exceptions – Roger Ebert among them – both popular and mainstream critics slated it.

The film was also a disaster at the box office. In Los Angeles, it succeeded Star Wars at the Chinese Theater. Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, describes Friedkin going to see Star Wars with his wife Jeanne Moreau:

“Jesus.” Friedkin looked like he had been punched in the stomach. He turned to Moreau, said, "I dunno, little sweet robots and stuff, maybe we’re on the wrong horse.” A week later, Sorcerer did follow Star Wars into the Chinese. Dark and relentless, especially compared to Lucas’s upbeat space opera, it played to an empty house, and was unceremoniously pulled to make room for the return of C3PO et al.

For overseas release, the film was substantially shortened, reordered and re-titled Wages of Fear, but it didn’t help. The $22 million film took just $9 million at the box office.

Years later, a number of critics would describe Sorcerer as underrated, even a masterpiece. But I can’t help feeling their view is coloured by the fact that it represented the end of something – the adult-orientated, director-dominated strain of 1970s cinema that died out around the time Star Wars was conquering the world.

It is, in some ways, a fine film, with some terrific sequences. But there is nothing wrong with preferring uplifting entertainment like Star Wars over the pessimism and cynicism that makes Sorcerer a hard film to really love.

1 comment:

Darren said...

Released in the UK under it's original title Wages Of Fear