There are two extremes when it comes to film criticism: Romance and Reason. Those of a leftist temperament almost always veer too far into emotional fancy; those of the right tend to get bogged down with intellectual analysis. The truth is that film, like most forms of media, is a rough and ready mixture of both. If a film doesn’t engage our emotions, it has failed. If it presents untruths, it has also failed.
Because of this, the best films often defy deep analysis, but whatever good analysis they generate needs to be truth oriented. By truth I don’t mean facts. Truth in this context approaches something in the range of moral truths. A great film will get at something real, usually something deeply human. What Russell Kirk, one of the fathers of American Conservatism, called the “Eternal things.”
This isn’t always pleasant. Schindler’s List is a little too emotionally affecting because it’s too real. The truths that holocaust films get at are deeply unpleasant. And that is the way they should be. To get at the truth of the Shoah is to delve deeply into the nature of evil and suffering. Schindler’s List should disturb. It moves us because of its disturbance.
But there are some films that focus on unpleasant themes with remarkable storytelling ability. They engross viewers in a world that we would never want to live in. The Godfather is probably the premiere example of this. For TV, the equivalent is Breaking Bad. Many of the best films fit into this space. These are dark entertainments, not fun in their subject matter, yet we enjoy them immensely.
Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s masterpiece from 1977, is one such film.
Friedkin is best known as the director behind The French Connection and The Exorcist. The French Connection has not aged particularly well, although its car chase sequence is still right up there with the bank heist in Heat and chariot race in Ben-Hur as one of the most thrilling action set pieces ever. The Exorcist, on the other hand, has aged immensely well – because Friedkin had good source material, but more importantly, because he adhered to Hitchcock’s maxim that what the audience can’t see is more terrifying than what they do see. Mood gradually builds, moving towards an almost unhinged climactic battle between good and evil.
Sorcerer is a different beast entirely. It’s not really like any other film I’ve seen, even though it is a remake of a French novel that had already been adapted into an acclaimed film. I do not know or care very much about either this book or its first adaptation, because when I finally saw Sorcerer last year, it was evident that this is maybe the greatest film ever made that almost no one has seen. Until 2014, it was essentially a lost movie because it failed at the box office and with the critics.
The oft cited reason for its failure is that it came out on June 24, 1977. What makes that day so significant, you may ask? Because Star Wars (not A New Hope, not Episode IV, it was originally just Star Wars) came out on May 25, 1977. Basically the argument by many fans of the film is that Lucas’ classic space opera sucked up all the money from that summer’s film market. But there’s a big problem with this theory.
Star Wars is to blame for Sorcerer‘s financial failure. But not because of money. Smokey and the Bandit (God rest Burt Reynolds) premiered on May 27 of that same summer, two days after the first battle of Yavin IV. Star Wars made almost $800 million on a budget of $11 million. Smoky made $300 million on a budget about half that size.
In the end, Sorcerer required twice the budget of Star Wars to be completed, and at the box office it recouped the budget of Smokey. In other words, it lost money. And yet, I would argue it is superior to both those wonderful films. But that’s exactly the problem: those films are wonderful. To be precise: they are full of wonder. Smokey is hilarious and lighthearted. It’s also full of exciting car stunts, having been directed by Burt’s legendary stunt double and best friend: Hal Needham. And Star Wars… I mean, what can be said about Star Wars that hasn’t been said before? The final shooting script can be used to teach people how to write scripts. From beginning to end, it’s about as perfect a film that’s ever been made. It’s funny, harrowing, dramatic, and mythological.
No, the problem isn’t that these other films made too much money. It’s that they made too much fun. Audiences were longing for light hearted fair by the summer of ‘77. Vietnam was over, but the wounds wouldn’t be healed for much longer. Nixon had left office in disgrace. And the political violence and polarization from the ‘60s makes contemporary times seem like the roaring twenties. But all that darkness produced some amazing films.
Coppola’s Godfather duology and The Conversation. The Exorcist. Death Wish. Blazing Saddles (a comedy for sure, but it concerns remarkably dark material). A Clockwork Orange. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite how fun it is, Jaws could be thrown into the mix with those films also. It is, after all, a retelling of Moby-Dick with a giant great white shark. The USS Indianapolis speech brilliantly performed by Robert Shaw (and at least partially written by the same – Shaw was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist) was the first time most Americans had heard about what happened to the Navy Crewmen that delivered the atomic bombs to Japan. Spoiler alert: after the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine, many of its crew were eaten by sharks.
And darker masterpieces than these would arrive by the end of the ‘70s. Halloween, Alien, and Apocalypse Now. So if we look at the cinematic landscape of the ‘70s, Sorcerer fits in perfectly. Just not for the summer of ‘77.
This is a film with no heroes, only villains. Yet it is structured very similarly to Star Wars. In order for the story to take shape, our four protagonists have to be assembled from all across the globe. A violent killer from Mexico. A Palestinian terrorist. A fraudulent businessman from Paris. And an Irish mobster from Jersey. Through four extended vignettes we are rapidly told each character’s backstory. But we are not shown how they all somehow made it to a township surrounded by jungle in South America. All four are in exile, hiding for their crimes against humanity.
They are assembled into a team to drive two trucks loaded with sweating nitroglycerin to an oil well hundreds of miles away that has caught on fire. Apparently that’s the only way to extinguish a flaming oil well. Blow it up.
Unfortunately sweating nitro sticks can blow up very easily. So every bump in the road, every obstacle in their way, potentially means death for these four vagabonds.
Except for all the pesky details, it’s basically Star Wars, or even Ocean’s 11 or Seven Samurai. Assemble the team, go rescue the princess and destroy the first Death Star, or rob a casino, or defend a village against bandits. But in Sorcerer, it’s assemble the team, carry dynamite across the jungle. This probably doesn’t sound super dark. Sort of like Mission: Impossible with trucks or The Dirty Dozen. No spoilers, but trust me, it’s bleak. This film is downright nihilistic.
It’s also epic and riveting. What’s truly amazing is that the viewer becomes so deeply invested in these unsympathetic characters. In order for there to be genuine suspense throughout the nail biting third act, we have to really care about whether these guys live or die. A clever film probably would’ve left out that they’re all basically jerks, allowing us to project anything we wanted onto them vis a vis Han Solo. But Friedkin imposes his narrative upon the viewer with so much gravitas that we cannot help but care.
Roy Scheider’s Irish mobster is ultimately the lynch pin. His performance is far more subdued then it was in the previous year’s Jaws, yet all the more powerful for it. This film is a wonder to behold. The location shoot was nightmarish on a level that puts Apocalypse Now to shame, and the sequences that the crew created are astonishing in their authenticity. Maybe its because the shooting was so awful, because the misery and intensity of struggle really comes through.
Friedkin thought this would be the film he’s remembered for. Its hard to imagine it replacing The Exorcist on that pedestal. But it is (probably) the better film. It’s an unrelenting juggernaut of a picture and needs to be seen much more widely. It deserves recognition alongside the other dark entertainments of the ‘70s.