Since watching William Friedkin’s 1977 film The Sorcerer a couple of weeks ago, I haven’t been able to get the bridge crossing scene out of my head. The clip above is just one small piece of an almost ten minute filmic odyssey of two trucks carrying nitroglycerin attempting to traverse a dilapidated rope bridge. It’s about as compelling a scene as I have ever seen, and while watching it I couldn’t help but think the whole time: how the hell did they film this? It is so precarious. The journey of the trucks through the South American mountains foreshadows Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), a film which features a rich rubber baron’s quest to pull a steamship over the Andes using human labor.
What I found interesting about the Wikipedia article for The Sorcerer—besides the fact it was Tangerine Dream’s first soundtrack, which sounds remarkably similar a John Carpenter score—was that folks associate the commercial failure of this film with its concurrent release with Star Wars.
The film gained mixed to negative critical reception upon its release. Its domestic (including rentals) and worldwide gross of $5.9 million and $9 million respectively did not recoup its costs. A considerable number of critics as well as the director himself attributed the film’s commercial failure to the fact it was released at roughly the same time as Star Wars, which instantly became a pop-culture phenomenon. Some observers consider the success of Star Wars and the box-office failure of Sorcerer to be a starting point in the decline of the New Hollywood cinema movement and the beginning of a blockbuster-oriented era.
I love the theory that the failure of The Sorcerer was a sign of a broader cultural shift away from a generation of films and filmmakers. From Friedkin and Coppola to Spielberg and Lucas. I’m sure there are many complex factors at work, but simultaneously sweeping and focused statements like this always capture my imagination. And as flawed as fixed moments of any passage between cultural states can be, I love this kind of scholarship—and film history does it better than most.
One thing that supports that theory, at least for me, is the experimental and loose narrative arc of the film in comparison to something like Star Wars. The first 15-20 minutes of The Sorcerer consists with four disconnected stories set around the world (Mexico, Israel, France, and New Jersey). They eventually come together in a remote South American village where an American oil company is exploiting the land and the people. The four down and out refugees we were introduced to in the beginning are given a kamikaze mission (almost an hour into the film) tasking them to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerin over a mountain to save the company’s gushing profits in the wake of an oil well explosion—that’s another crazy scene. The themes are arguably the same as Star Wars: imperial corruption, terrorism, exploited labor, etc. They are just dealt with in a far more realistic manner with a dark sense of fatalism that would be the antithesis of the blockbuster film. The Sorcerer is an awesome film, but even awesomer when thought of as the final cry of an entire generation of Hollywood film makers that would soon be overshadowed by killer sharks and talking droids.