Sorcerer: Friedkin’s Ballbreaker

sorcerer

“What I did on Sorcerer makes Jaws look like a picnic!” Roy Scheider

Jungle drums were sounding the call for William Friedkin’s blood in 1977. Critics judged Sorcerer, his loose remake of George Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear, filmed in the wilds of the Dominican Republic, an act of hubris out of step with the changing cinema demographic.  Long buried and butchered, the director has championed a Lazarus like rebirth on Blu ray, with select hosted screenings to newly appreciative audiences. How does it stand up after all the fuss?

Happily, his faith in the film’s merits is well founded. It’s a bleak, timeless, nihilistic examination of grubby geo-politics from the rat’s eye view, in eye-popping wide screen verdant greens and punctuating broiling flames. Four disparate desperadoes, on the lam in a flea-bitten petroleum company shanty town, seize on the promise of a relative fortune and a ticket out; driving unstable nitroglycerin 218 miles by treacherous jungle terrain to extinguish an oil blaze.

sorcerer fire

Whereas Clouzot’s 1953 back and white classic doubled the south of France for an unnamed South American locale, Friedkin’s ambition was broader. He sought to make something that was “grittier than the French movie, with the documentary feel for which I had become known.” He was fiercely competitive with Francis Ford Coppola, off shooting his own Heart Of Darkness spin in the Philippines, Apocalypse Now. Locational veracity was paramount to Friedkin’s existential tale of suspense. If that meant turning down preferred star Steve McQueen‘s request to film in the States, afraid his marriage to Ali McGraw would suffer, so be it. With hindsight, the director thinks he made a mistake, believing a McQueen close-up is worth a hundred wide-shots of steaming jungle. Although McQueen could play ground down, he was still a star behind those baby blues. Roy Scheider, his replacement, is a far better choice – a beaten down (criminal) working stiff, with a slab of a nose and a wiry weariness.

Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green (The Wild Bunch) open on the four men’s sketchy backstories, spanning the globe. In New Jersey, wheelman Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) limps away from a fatal car crash after a church robbery in which the priest brother of a mob connected criminal is shot. In Paris, wealthy banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is up to his neck in fraud; when his partner commits suicide after his father refuses to bail them out, he flees, without a word to his wife. Dapper but seedy hitman Nilo (Francisco Rubal) flees an assassination in Mexico; and Jerusalem, where Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian terrorist, escapes an Israeli raid after he and his comrades set off a bomb.

These men all find themselves in Porvenir, a filthy scab on the backside of nowhere, where none of the profits from the rapacious American Petroleum company filter down to the locals. There, they drift in a fugue state, sweating in swamps fitting oil pipelines, and nursing beers in the shanty town’s bar. Scanlon gazes at a faded cheesecake  poster, the girl reaching for America’s soft drink of choice; two carbonated castaways. When rebels blow the next well, the company offers big money for four men who can transport the unstable nitro by road; have a coke and a smile, and drive like hell.

To further stick two fingers up at Paramount, his interfering overlords (they joint funded with Universal), Friedkin ripped a picture of the Gulf and Western board out of a calender (they owned Paramount) and framed it on the wall of the office to represent the company’s distant, unfeeling owners.  He was at the height of his powers, off the back of The French Connection and The Exorcist, and was wrapped up in his arrogant desire to trump both himself and his contemp(t)oraries. The spectacular Jersey car crash wrote off twelve cars before he was satisfied, the first delay of many.

The Jerusalem section incorporated a real coincidental explosion around the block; scenes of bustling, baying crowds and soldiers storming the gang holed up in a block of flats evoked the neo-realism of The Battle Of Algiers (and conversely influences the stand-out sequence in WWZ).

A bride’s black eyes suggest no-one gets a moment in the sun in this squalid universe. Discussing the life and death memoirs of an officer his wife is editing, Victor says, “He was a soldier.” “No one is just anything, “she replies. The four reduced men must gamble with life, to give it value.

Scheider recalled the troubled shoot in his biography by Diane C Kachmor; Friedkin was obsessive, driven. “I was the only guy he couldn’t fire, because I was the leading man. I said to Billy, “You gotta stop firing these people, ’cause I’m getting tired of going to the airport and saying goodbye to them.”

Roads to nowhere, like modern Nazca lines, punctured the interior, to transport the trucks to their slippery jungle trails. The vehicles were beat-up old army M211’s – real ballbreakers (Ballbreaker was Friedkin’s originally mooted title). They were christened Lazarus and Sorcerer, in the manner of the real local hauliers; named for girlfriends and mythical creatures. Friedkin said, “Sorcerer is an evil wizard. And in this age the evil wizard is fate – it takes complete control of our lives.”

Sorcerer TRUCK

Scheider had been bitter that Freidkin hadn’t cast him as Fr Karras in The Exorcist. Freidkin claimed Bill Blatty didn’t want him; Universal would back Sorcerer if he was cast. Although they repeatedly butted heads, they both fiercely believed in what they were putting on screen.

“When I take a mountain road on two wheels, on a road with potholes the size of craters, that’s the way it was. No one but Billy could have persuaded me to take the insane chances that I did. But when it was over and I looked at the rough footage, I knew it was worth it.”

sorcerer SCHEIDER

The most incredible sequence is when the trucks traverse a fraying, rotting rope bridge across a river in a torrential downpour. Legendary production designer John Box (Lawrence Of Arabia)  had the bridge be controlled by a concealed system of hydraulics. The trucks were lashed to it so that as it swayed, they didn’t topple over. While the fast flowing river was a perfect location, unusually dry weather had meant that by the time the bridge was built, it had completely dried up. A sensible man would have scrapped the stunt – not Freidkin. “I had become like Fitzcarraldo, the man who built an opera house in the Brazilian jungle. When I saw the finished bridge, I believed that if I could film the scene as I conceived it, it would be one of the greatest in film history.”

So, scouts were dispatched to find a close match for the location, settling on Mexico. The bridge was taken apart and rebuilt over another river in Vera Cruz. Production elsewhere was on hiatus. Fate laughed at Friedkin however, as this river also began to dry up. Box and his crew diverted the flow upstream to shore up the depth, while rain machines provided the downpour. In the end, the twelve minute nail biting scene cost a whopping $3 million.

An apt inspiration for the director was The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, with its tale of madness brought on by the bickering of gold prospectors. When Scanlon and Nilo are held up by rebels, one takes Scanlon’s hat, in a nod to the bandit doing the same with Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs.

Scanlon believes at one point they are the only surviving truck – “We’re sitting on double shares!” he cackles, Dobbs like. For the last leg of the journey, with Scanlon the sole driver left, behind the wheel of Lazaro, John Box found an otherwordly location in the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico. It was sacred Navajo land, where bizarre petrified wooden growths and unusual rock formations bear down silently on Scanlon’s pitiless, purgatorial odyssey. As the last of his gas runs out, he abandons the truck and staggers the final 1..3 miles with the remaining explosives to the hellfire ahead.

sorcerer badlands

Sorcerer had the misfortune to open in Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA just after Star Wars – audiences stayed away in droves, and it was pulled after a week, Lucas’ shiny space fable hastened back. Friedkin is sanguine about his hubris and bad luck – audiences tired of early ’70’s American cinema’s pessimism, Tangerine Dream’s eerie electronic score a distancing world away from John Williams’ soaring symphony.

Had George Lucas stuck to his arty, docu-driven realism of THX-1138, with its experimental sound and refusal to pander, would his ongoing style have mirrored Friedkin’s? Sorcerer is in many ways the kind of film the anthropologist in Lucas admired; very little exposition, the viewer thrust into unusual locations and situations, observational and free-flowing. An abiding image is the loin cloth clad Indian father breaking away from his family to chase after Scanlon’s truck, darting in and out of view of the rear view mirror, chuckling at the mechanical monster. Just another kind of magic…

 

For further insights into Sorcerer, The Sorcerer Blog is invaluable.

UPDATE: William Friedkin presents the restored Sorcerer to the Champs Elysées Film Festival 15 July 2015, and below we have, via French site Filmosphere, a 30 minute interview with the director on his passion project.

 

 

Originally posted 2014-05-11 17:25:46. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article