Paleo Retiree writes:
William Friedkin’s 1977 metaphysical action-adventure film had an almost ludicrously unhappy initial release. Although it was widely anticipated and was one of the biggest productions of its era, the critics were hard on the film, finding it overbearing and overlong, and the mass audience ignored it almost completely; the popular phenom of the year turned out to be “Star Wars” instead.
As the years passed, and to the extent that anyone gave it much thought at all — finding and watching a copy of “Sorcerer” wasn’t easy — the film was generally seen more as a symbol than a movie. It acquired a reputation as the moment Friedkin (one of the most successful directors of the ’70s) came a-cropper, as filmmakers often did in those days. It also acquired notoriety as an example of the way that the rampaging, adventurous “New Hollywood” gang self-immolated, thereby making way for the the corporate-blockbuster era we’ve been saddled with ever since.
Though I was a huge movie fan in the 1970s, I was one of the millions who didn’t bother with “Sorcerer.” I didn’t dig Friedkin, for one thing. He was too hard-hitting, too devoted to obvious dramatic effects, and too content to work within genre for the Me of that era. (What can I say — I was a bit of a damn hippie.) For another, I couldn’t imagine anything that sounded less appealing than a big, pretentious action picture made by the guy who’d already walloped us over the head with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.”
But in very recent years “Sorcerer” has begun to acquire a few fans; some of them have discussed it as a film maudit, and some have even made the claim that it’s an overlooked masterpiece. Friedkin himself sees the film as his greatest movie. After years of effort he was recently able to straighten out some rights problems and to do some restoration work on the film. A result of all these rumblings has been a glossy new digitally-encoded / digitally-projected version of the movie that has been making the rounds of film-buff venues. In New York City, that means the Film Forum, and the Film Forum is where The Question Lady and I finally caught up with the picture.
Put both of us down on the list of the “overlooked masterpiece” people. Jesus H. Christ, what a transportingly exciting experience “Sorcerer” was for me. A quarter of the way into the movie, I was thinking “This is fuckin’ great!” Two-thirds of the way through, I whispered excitedly to my wife “This is the movie that ‘Apocalypse Now’ should have been!” As we left the theater, I was so moved that I could barely express my enthusiasm for the film without passing out from sheer movie bliss. We spent our entire dinner (enjoyed at this wonderful Greenwich Village bistro) yakking fervently about the movie.
Quick explanation of the content and story. The setup and plot come from the same 1950 Georges Arnaud novel that Henri-George Clouzot’s legendary 1953 “Wages of Fear” was based on. Four guys have wound up in desperate straits in a seedy oil town and, in a bid to get out, they take on the near-suicidal job of trucking a big load of nitroglycerine across rough terrain. Since I haven’t watched “Wages of Fear” in decades, and since I’ve never read the novel the two films are based on, where comparisons go I’m going to confine myself to reporting that “Sorcerer” has a very different feeling than I recall “Wages of Fear” having. Despite using the same setup, “Sorcerer” doesn’t feel like a re-make — it’s very much its own film.
What’s distinctive and wonderful to me about “Sorcerer” is that the film works both on a metaphysical / visionary level AND as a lean-and-mean narrative picture. On the simplest level, it’s a heist / caper movie, really — something like “The Bank Job” or “The Asphalt Jungle.” It doesn’t once violate the genre’s conventions. There’s a long “assembling the team” stretch at the beginning of the movie. The “heist” thing itself starts to go awry early on. The characters come undone, each in his own way … Every scene advances the story. You watch the film playing the genre game of knowing what to expect and hoping it gets delivered in a fresh way. Friedkin and his screenwriter, Walon Green, twist the knife in a little deeper and little more painfully with every step the story takes, and they orchestrate tones brilliantly. Humor (mostly of a slapstick-absurd sort) alternates with horror and intensity in a most expert suspense-movie way.
It’s a brilliantly-constructed — resourceful, witty and incisive — narrative moustrap, IMHO. Had it been filmed simply and straightforwardly, the results would have been, at the very least, more than OK. But what Friedkin as director chose to do was roar off, pedal-to-the-metal, in the direction of hyperbole and hallucination. The flamboyance never lets up. That little Central American oil town? It has got to be the seediest, muddiest, most corrupt such town in movie history. The mountain slopes that the trucks threaten to tumble down? They’re HUGE. The rains, when they come, are enough to flatten New York City. The men’s leathery faces are photographed in Sam Fuller-like (in other words, expressionist / psychological) ways that turn closeups into epic studies in masculinity, fear and toughness.
The real landscapes themselves grow more alive and bizarre as the film proceeds — combinations of Caspar David Friedrich and Henri Rousseau. Who knew that Friedkin was such a gifted image-maker? The adventure challenges themselves — narrow mountain roads, soggy jungle ones, recalcitrant machinery, threatening natives — are so flamboyantly detailed and methodically drawn out that that they take on their own mind-altering qualities. The film is unquestionably one of the greatest collections of action-movie stunts ever, btw. Friedkin and his cast and crew shot the film on a huge budget over the course of ten months (!), much of it in horrendously challenging conditions in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, and they came home with a lot of stunning, daredevil footage. (Another thing I kept thinking as I watched the film: “How many crew members were lost or maimed during the making of this film?”) One landscape tops the previous one, and one absurdly challenging situation caps what preceded it. There are lulls … but they’re cannily-placed, and the film always roars back with more intensity.
What’s remarkable is how well this combo works; the shrewdly executed, never-once-violated entertainment framework and the demented-Expressionist attack aren’t at war with each other, they balance and enhance each other. And the film really does express a vision. You might almost say that it’s more driven by its vision than it is by its characters or its story, but that would do an injustice to the film’s narrative momentum. True to the film’s DNA, the vision it expresses is a hybrid one — a cross between, on the one hand, hardboiled American-tough-guy cynicism and, on the other, Euro-style metaphysical absurdism. Do any of our efforts ever really come to anything? If not, why do we bother trying? Yet for some god-unknown reason we do … only for nature and fate to slap us senseless all over again.
That jungle that’s entered-into and penetrated? It’s the jungle of Life Itself — irrationality, surprises, blind gestation and survival. The phallic men and their machines do their best to negotiate, master, take advantage of (and even violate) this out-of-control, vegetative fecundity. Yet it always grows back and throws new impossibilities at them. Nature’s a honey badger, and honey badger just don’t care. When will we finally earn a few moments of R&R? And maybe even get to enjoy some peace and pleasure? Ever?
Small side note: That overgrown jungle? I don’t think Friedkin would mind us taking it as “pussy.” Hetero guys who enjoyed a few sexual adventures back in that funky, unkempt, oral-sex-obsessed era well remember what it was like to come face to face with a ’70s twat. Going down on a ’70s girl, you really were heading up a dank river into a fetid, mythological jungle. And yes, you had to be a Real Man to face (let alone to enjoy) the challenge. Note to self for future pondering: Isn’t it interesting how the vogue for the hyper-trimmed, often bare female crotch has emerged AT THE EXACT SAME MOMENT when we’ve lost touch with traditional, grown-up masculinity? Coincidence? Perhaps the glossy, flawless, always-fresh pussy is the only kind of pussy today’s eternal 14-year-old boys can stand to face. No more overgrown, mossy jungles to attempt to conquer. Maybe Photoshop and CGI have a tendency to keep everyone in a state of infantility. Yes? No? Anyhoo …
The film plays the cosmic predicament almost as much for laughs as for horror. There’s a lot of slapstick scattered between the nearly-over-the-top carryings-on. Half the time the beat-up, clanking, cobbled-together trucks the guys drive lumber along like primordial, mythical gods; the rest of the time they look like forlorn insects lost in a vastly-out-of-proportion landcape. We’re clowns as often as we’re (very occasionally) heroes. We can sometimes summon up amazing amounts of style and sang-froid, yet when the chips are really down we’re alone and afraid; we watch our sanity dissolve in a harsh, cold universe that barely deigns to register us. Staring fate in the eye, we fall to our knees — and then collapse onto our faces.
Let me acknowledge that the film isn’t the most persuasive thing in a conventional sense. There’s a lot of ’70s character, color, grit, swagger and atmosphere to be relished; the stunt work is “real” in the best pre-digital way; and Friedkin likes to bring a lot of documentary-style immediacy to bear on his projects. But in dumbass TV-realism terms the film is at best half-convincing, and people who insist on a lot of that kind of thing might find themselves resisting being swept up by the film. The film’s real existence happens on a heightened — metaphorical / poetic / theatrical — plane. If you can join it there, though, you might enjoy a seriously sweet experience; if you’re into it, “Sorcerer” is like an otherworldly cross between “Jurassic Park,” tragic opera and the Three Stooges.
Hmm, since I’ve stumbled into a making-comparisons moment I’m going to treat myself to a few more. Three films it’s almost impossible not to compare “Sorcerer” to: “The Wild Bunch” (another overblown, nihilistic and exciting genre picture, also written by Walon Green); “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (another harsh-vision-in-the-guise-of-an-action-picture tale of white men coming unraveled south of the border); and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (another hallucinatory jungle epic that’s a meditation on civilization and barbarism).
And a fourth: “Apocalypse Now.” I liked “Sorcerer” a lot more than I liked “Apocalypse Now.” For all its virtues, Coppola’s movie has always seemed to me to be a dud — a mishmash of portentous, promising scenes capped by a final act no one gave enough pre-production thought to. “Sorcerer” by comparison has tons of narrative drive and bears down on its climax in a totally controlled way.
Also, “Apocalypse” — inspired by Joseph Conrad and Werner Herzog — is more in the art movie tradition. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, of course, and like a lot of people I often wish that the U.S. had more of an art-movie (and high-art generally) tradition. But the simple, inescapable reality is that a lot of our best work has always made its appearance in non-high-art forms and fields: dance music, crime fiction, vaudeville acts, commercial design … To me, what Coppola’s movie expresses is a hippie artist’s yearning to be free of commercialism and to achieve visionary art at all costs, and it’s weighed down by personal psychological struggle and a woozy kind of self-consciousness. All those visions that Coppola willed himself into having wound up seeming kinda arbitrary to me. Friedkin, by contrast, places his visions in the context of a streamlined narrative. And, maybe partly because of that, Friedkin’s visions hit me as more resonant and mind-altering than Coppola’s did.
America, eh? Isn’t it remarkable how often in our art and entertainment the fusing of art AND trash out-achieves the kind of art that wants to deny or overcome trash? “Apocalypse” was a great summing-up of an era or it was nothing. “Sorcerer” is both a summing-up (it’s very easy to take the film as a parable of America, perhaps even Western Civ, getting lost in foreign adventures and then trying to extricate itself) AND a heck of an action pic.
I’m not sure why, over the years, I’ve grown so much more fond of Friedkin’s work than I was back in the ’70s. Maybe I’ve learned how to enjoy the flamboyant and the hard-hitting. Maybe I’ve acquired respect for the craft of putting a story over. Maybe I’ve just grown tired of the whiny, burnt-out quality that hovers around many of the other moviemaking talents from that era. So many of the Movie Brats burned up what they had to give awfully quickly, you know? If Coppola had devoted himself to winemaking after “Apocalypse,” if Scorsese had become a fulltime film preservationist after “The Last Waltz,” if De Palma had gone to medical school after “Blow Out,” would the world be a vastly poorer place, aesthetically speaking?
Meanwhile, while Friedkin has certainly had his ups and downs, and while he unquestionably has his own rabid arty-Expressionist side, he has gone on delivering satisfying and juicy films for decades. Now in his late 70s, he’s still making remarkable films. Maybe the main difference is that the Movie Brats were mainly focused on self-expression while Friedkin has always been as much about selling the hook, the story and the characters as he has been about expressing himself. After all, if expressing yourself is all you really care about, once you’ve finished expressing yourself, where really do you have left to go? But for the telling-a-story crowd, there are always new yarns to spin, new characters to put over, and fresh new ways you can apply your talents, as unruly and out-of-control (in a good sense) as they may be.