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·6 mins
A scene from the movie 'Sorcerer'

In 1971, William Friedkin won a Best Director Oscar (and four more Academy Awards) with his 5th movie, “The French Connection”. Based on a true story, the movie’s amazing car-vs-subway-car chase sequence became famous enough that it has been referenced in video games such as Grand Theft Auto IV. In those pre-computer-graphics days, car chases were filmed by actually performing them, and in this case the chase was shot in Brooklyn in real traffic, without a permit, with the car speeding through 26 blocks of the city at 90 mph. Accidents and near-accidents made it into the movie; Friedkin sat in the back of the stunt car and held the camera himself, on the grounds that the official cameramen had families.

In 1973, Friedkin had another infamous success with “The Exorcist”, the first horror movie to be nominated for an Oscar. While it’s pretty tame by modern standards, at the time there were stories of people fainting and vomiting in the audience, and it was officially unavailable for purchase on home video in the UK until 1999 when it was finally released uncut.

But today I’m writing about what Friedkin did next.

Following his two smash successes, he had plans to make “The Devil’s Triangle”, a movie about the Bermuda Triangle, which was big in popular culture at the time thanks to Charles Berlitz’ book. In the mean time, he decided to keep busy with a cheap side project, a re-imagining of a classic French movie of the 1950s. The budget was set at $2.5m, and location shooting soon began in Paris and Jerusalem.

The movie, eventually titled “Sorcerer”, tells the story of four career criminals who have each made a mistake and been forced to flee to the obscurity of a Latin American banana republic. Trapped there, they want to return to their homes, but can’t get together enough money to pay for air fare, bureaucracy, and the necessary bribes. When a US oil company’s rig is sabotaged, a massive well fire ensues, and the only way the company can stop it and save their finances is to snuff it out with high explosives. Unfortunately the only available dynamite is a couple of hundred miles away, and it hasn’t been maintained properly, so the nitroglycerin has started to ooze out into the containers, making it liable to explode on physical shock, and far too risky to transport by air. The oil company hires the four anti-heroes for the job, letting them build two working trucks from a junkyard full of old military vehicles, and setting them off on a badly maintained road through the rainforest. As you can probably imagine, the journey quickly becomes a nightmare of mudslides, swamps, and in particular a slowly collapsing wood and rope suspension bridge.

Now, remember, this is the early 1970s, and there are no computer effects. So the only way to film all this stuff was for Friedkin and crew to set off for the Dominican Republic to film actual run-down ex-Korean-war trucks being driven along dangerous roads, in real jungles, in the pouring rain.

The $2.5m planned budget was long gone, and a new target of $15m had been set. The collapsing suspension bridge had to be carefully constructed, with hidden hydraulics to make it tilt and shake and collapse at the right moments. That alone cost $1m, and by the time they’d finished the river had dried up. The entire thing had to be disassembled, flown to Mexico, and reassembled across another river they had identified as a suitable replacement. By that time, Mexico too was in a period of dry weather, so it was necessary to come up with some movie torrential rain. The only available equipment was some disused sewage pumps. The actors all had to do their own stunts, so before long they were coaxing a rusting truck across a collapsing, swaying bridge over a roaring river, with no safety equipment in sight, all while being hosed down by municipal sewage pumps.

Acting: Often a lot less glamorous and enjoyable than you might think.

By the time the movie was finished, about half the crew had fallen ill with malaria, food poisoning or gangrene, or been injured in some way. The final cost of the movie was $22m, almost ten times the original planned budget.

And then it was released, and it flopped.

There are numerous reasons why. First of all, the title made a lot of people think it was another horror movie like “The Exorcist”. People who hated or were offended by “The Exorcist” didn’t go to see “Sorcerer”. People who loved “The Exorcist” went to see “Sorcerer” expecting more of the same, and were bitterly disappointed.

Then there was the style. The movie is filmed like a documentary. The opening scenes are vignettes around the world, showing how each of the four criminals ended up fleeing to South America. There’s no overarching explanation of what’s going on; you’re introduced to a crook, you see his life collapse, then we cut to another country and you’re introduced to another crook speaking another foreign language, repeat.

Audiences who made it through the prologues to the main part of the movie found that Friedkin wanted to follow the example of Stanley Kubrick, and tell the story visually rather than through dialogue. About half of the recorded dialogue was removed before the final cut.

Then there was the soundtrack. By the 1980s, Tangerine Dream were a mainstream enough choice that they were picked for TV soundtracks. In 1977, nobody had heard of them, their best US chart performance being 158 in the Billboard 200 the previous year.

Then there was the cast. The only actor audiences were likely to recognize was Roy Scheider, who had been in “Jaws” the year before — but his (English language) introduction was the last of the opening sequences.

So American audiences walked in expecting a horror movie, were presented with unexplained subtitled short movies in Hebrew, Spanish and French featuring actors they didn’t recognize, all over a soundtrack of menacing analogue synthesizers. They walked out in droves. The final nail in Sorcerer’s coffin was that Star Wars had been released the week before. Everyone decided they’d rather watch that again instead. “Sorcerer” made less than a tenth of what it would have had to earn to break even.

But I’m writing all this in the hope that you’ll have realized that it’s actually an amazing movie, well worth your time to view. It’s a story about people suffering through incredible stress, fighting what fate has done to them, gradually mentally falling apart as they tackle setback after setback, as technology both threatens them and fails to keep them safe from a natural environment they cannot control. It’s Stephen King’s favorite movie. It’s one of Roger Ebert’s top 10 of its release year. Rent it, it’s available in restored HD and some of the cinematography is amazing.

In the aftermath of “Sorcerer”, Universal Studios cut their contract with Friedkin. He moved to France and slowly recovered from malaria. The era of gritty downbeat experimental Hollywood movies came to an end. When Friedkin returned to movie making, it was to make the ensemble crime comedy “The Brink’s Job” in Boston.