To be fair, it’s too easy to dismiss films in the 1970’s. You hear about a film about big trucks, and you think Convoy, or Smokey and the Bandit, or possibly Duel (which is really good). You hear about a film with Roy Scheider, and you think Jaws. You hear the name “William Friedkin”, and you think The Exorcist. And then you hear the title Sorcerer, and you know it’s from 1977, and you’re probably thinking possibly bad sword-and-sandal-and-wizardry, or maybe rock-and-roll Vangelis-style animated opera by Ralph Bashki, or possibly even blaxploitation kung-fu disco mafia flick. And you’d be so totally wrong on all of them.
Sorcerer, is, in fact, actually a rather good thriller, with essentially the same story as 1951’s Wages of Fear: four men are hired to transport an urgent nitroglycerin shipment without the equipment that would make it safe. I haven’t see Wages of Fear, so it would be unfair of me to make a comparison. In Sorcerer, in fact, four guys (criminals), who have made their way through various (nefarious) ways and (very illegal) reasons to the same South American hellpit, have to transport old, leaky nitroglycerin, in two decrepit trucks (cobbled together in a loving montage from the bits and bobs of about 7 other equally decrepit trucks), without any safety equipment, in order to blow up a fire that has started in an oil pumping station. Because blowing up a fire with leaky, old nitro is the best way to kill such a big-ass fire.***
So “Dominguez” (Roy Scheider), “Serrano” (Bruno Cremer), Nilo (Francisco Rabal), and “Martinez” (Amidou), the actors playing the four dudes who have been selected to drive this two trucks of death, set off into the South American jungle in their rickety trucks with the promise of $$$ and new identities should they succeed. Or they will die fiery explosive deaths. A win-win all around.
It’s good. It’s really good. And you will like these guys. Even though they are bad guys. That’s why they’re here in South America, trying to eke out some kind of living in a disreputable little town for an American oil company. But they’re still bad guys, and things catch up to them, and these bad guys have to figure a way out. But you will care, dammit, about how the end of this movie plays out, and you will hold your breath during that big wobbly bridge scene, and you will have to remind yourself that this is 1977, and those are all practical effects.
Why didn’t you ever hear about this movie, you ask? Two Words:
This flick has the great distinction of opening one month after a little movie you may have heard of, Star Wars. So there was that problem. Also, there are four “vignettes” in the beginning – the back story of our four main guys – and there’s no English spoken in the first 15-20 minutes. American audiences have issues in general with subtitles. Because having to read is too much trouble, I don’t know. So, thinking that this was some foreign film, there were a lot of walkouts. And then there was the problem, with, oh, the title of the damned thing.
Even worse, Sorcerer, brought to you by the same fella who brought you The Exorcist.
So. You have a wacky title, bad timing, and a beginning sequence that makes the average jumbo-popcorn-eating-Bubba go “Huh?” Which is a shame, really, because it’s actually pretty good.
But why Sorcerer?
I’ll tell you why. Billy Friedkin wasn’t able to come up with a name himself, until they got to the bit where they needed POS trucks to cobble to together, and one of them happened to have the name “Sorcerer” painted on it.
Really. Imagine if Orson Welles had named the movie Rosebud after the sled. Paramount and the movie theaters had to put up cards saying that Sorcerer wasn’t a foreign film and the audience hadn’t wandered into the wrong theater and it didn’t turn out as well as everyone wanted it to, but then Friedkin went on to bring us Cruisin’ and To Live and Die in L.A., so I guess it turned out okay.
*** So, as it turns out, dropping dynamite into a big oil rig fire is in fact a good way to stop the fire. The explosion quickly uses up all the oxygen, thereby smothering the fire. At least that’s what the Hubster says, and he’s an engineer who’s studied this kind of thing, so I’ll go with that explanation.