At the very height of the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s, two of its emboldened Young Turks cut their way into the jungle to film epic stories of desperation, doom, and madness. Both found themselves mired, nearly lost. Neither of their careers ever quite recovered. But Francis Ford Coppola re-emerged in 1979 with Apocalypse Now, a critical and commercial hit that cemented his reputation against future indignities and remains an acknowledged classic to this day. William Friedkin's 1977 Sorcerer, on the other hand, flopped epically upon its release and was soon forgotten by most.
But not by all. There was something about the sweaty, existential grimness of Friedkin's film—an adaptation of the same novel that inspired Henri-George Clouzot's 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear—that resonated with many of those who did see it. And then there was its action, especially one scene involving a pair of trucks crossing a teetering suspension bridge feet over a roiling river in a lashing rain, maybe the most skin-crawling onscreen use of hydraulic effects since Friedkin's own The Exorcist four years earlier. No one who sat through that would forget it. Friedkin himself certainly didn't forget the film, and in recent years he fought a legal battle to secure the rights to rescue it from neglect and desultory video editions. Now a new restored Blu-ray version from Warner Home Video allows another generation a chance to take the ride and see for itself. (Friedkin has taken to Twitter to warn against buying the new DVD version, mastered from an inferior transfer; Warner is supposedly in the process of making it right.)
While Sorcerer doesn't deserve its obscurity, it does deserve some of the criticisms lobbed at it upon its debut and since. Most of all, it is undeniably indulgent of Friedkin to front-load the stories of its global cast of characters in discrete sequences, one after another, in the first reels. You watch Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal), young Arab terrorist Kassem (Amidou), plummy French banker Victor (Bruno Cremer), and New Jersey hood Jackie (Roy Scheider) each commit crimes that there is no coming back from, and more than a half-hour passes before you find them all hiding out in a wretched South American village in thrall to the American oil companies who are drilling nearby. It's so wretched there, in fact, that they will do almost anything to cobble together the money to leave—including volunteering to drive trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin over 200 miles of forbidding mountains, jungle, and rivers to put out a raging oil-well fire.
The front-loaded stories do help establish one thing, though: These men deserve their suffering. And they will suffer even more. The busted grilles of the old trucks they rehab to haul the nitro grimace like frozen demon faces. One of the main characters will murder again for the chance to get blown up while trying to escape this dank backwater. And once they get on what passes for a road, urged on by the frosty electronic pulse of Tangerine Dream's influential score, the film's final hour moves from tense moment to tense moment, impossible challenge to impossible challenge, deadly impasse to deadly impasse. During the river crossing, when it seems that survival is a second-to-second proposition, an enormous uprooted tree slams into the bridge, pinning Victor to the side of the cab with a tangle of branches like a flight of spears and arrows, and it seems like the gods (and Friedkin) are out to punish these men for their transgressions and the arrogance of their mission. Talk about green hell.
Friedkin's taking his cast, his crew, and all the practical-effects gear deep into the jungles of the Dominican Republic (plus Mexico, Israel, and France) to film these agonies on location is one of the reasons for the film's smoking-crater commercial performance. Flush with the studio capital that came from back-to-back epochal smashes (The French Connection and The Exorcist), Friedkin ran up his carte blanche to the tune of $22 million, around $85 million in 2014 dollars, and opened a month after Star Wars, which generated billions on an $11 million budget and made old-fashioned adventure epics like this one all but obsolete.
But watching Friedkin's folly today provides a visceral reminder of the kind of vigorous physical filmmaking that George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and its like would eventually sap. Watching the hulking trucks inch along the crumbling edges of thousand-foot drops, a few inches of tread hanging over the void, hits you in a way that green-screen never will. Seeing the trucks slide down muddy slopes and pitch on the swaying bridge awes with its palpable physical reality. If Sorcerer isn't quite the artistic equal of films such as Apocalypse Now or Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, it nonetheless stands in their company as cinematic spectacles of tropical extremity unlikely to be topped ever again. And given that Sorcerer has been mostly unseen for decades in any format other than grotty VHS tape or full-screen DVD manufactured from a godawful transfer, seeing a restored print on a big screen is not an adventure you should miss.