'Sorcerer': How Making a Movie Masterpiece Became an Obsession

By DAVID WEINER

April 23, 2014

William Friedkin's overlooked '70s masterpiece Sorcerer is back, remastered and looking amazing for the first time on Blu-ray this week, and the Oscar-winning director tells ETonline that the epic undertaking became an obsession for him -- and there's no way that the existential thriller could be remade today in the same way. 

Video: ET's Summer Movie Preview

"I was obsessed with [the movie] and driven to make it," explains the Oscar-winning director, who took four years to follow-up his one-two punch delivery of The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973. Pressed to come up with the ideal follow-up to the films that gave him Academy Award recognition, he became obsessed with the idea of making his own version of the 1953 French film The Wages of Fear, itself an adaptation of Georges Arnaud's 1950 novel Le Salaire de la Peur. Roy Scheider, at the top of his game after starring in Steven Spielberg's Jaws, was cast opposite Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou as one of four unrelated men with questionable pasts who take on a deadly job for an American oil company to transport highly volatile nitroglycerin across 200 miles of extremely treacherous jungle terrain. A straightforward thriller with no supernatural undertones, the film's title was inspired by a Miles Davis album, and a knowing nod to The Exorcist. The film's working title was actually Ballbreaker.

"I didn't do it as a remake of Wages of Fear, I did it as a new version," says Friedkin of the film that takes place on multiple continents. "These characters were four strangers marooned in a desperate situation, hiding out from retribution, who had to either cooperate or die -- and that seems to be the world's condition today. All of these countries are strangers who don't like each other. We don't have the same philosophies. ... But if we don't all cooperate -- like if the countries in the Middle East don't make peace with Israel, they'll all be destroyed -- it's mutually assured destruction, and that's what Sorcerer and Wages of Fear are about."

Friedkin further explains why "remake" is not such a bad word: "There's a wonderful production on Broadway ... of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring [Killer Joe and August: Osage County writer] Tracy Letts. It's a big smash hit, and not because it's a remake -- it's another version. Any time someone does a production of Hamlet it's not a remake, it's a new interpretation with different actors. … So I thought that Wages of Fear could be reinterpreted for a modern audience, because it dealt with certain truths."

In today's remake/reboot-obsessed Hollywood, could the film be made the same way again? Especially that intense bridge-crossing sequence? "It would be done all CGI [today]," replies Friedkin matter-of-factly. "I had a great production designer named John Box who worked for [director] David Lean. ... We came up together with a way of engineering that bridge so that it was safe, that it looked lethal, but was actually very safely constructed so there were no accidents -- knock wood. But any time you attempt something like that, there's always the unexpected."

Related: William Friedkin's Finest Secrets Revealed

Sorcerer was released in the summer of 1977 to mixed reviews and disappointing box office, but much of that has been attributed to the fact that the film was released just a few weeks after a little film called Star Wars came out -- which changed the rules of Hollywood and decidedly altered the general public's palate for big-screen entertainment.

Watch the video for a trio of intense scenes from Sorcerer, including its signature bridge-crossing sequence featured on the movie's memorable poster art.

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