Written by Walon Green
Directed by William Friedkin
Fate or free will? It’s a question that will likely be debated until the sun’s heat stops shining on this planet. Do we choose our path in life, or do we follow a series of steps before us? What about people who meet early, gruesome ends? If Fate is actual, then what was the point of their lives? To die, to be a supporting player in someone else’s story? We’re born into a world where many institutions and systems are already in place. We have no say in their operation save for being allowed to vote for a few representatives every few years that are funded chiefly by those same institutions. The only power we seem to have is the ability to make people in the same economic class miserable through our actions, letting our personal grievances dictate our global philosophy. It’s bleak as hell, the powerlessness of existence.
Four vignettes make up the prologue of Sorcerer. In Veracruz, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) enters an apartment and kills the tenant. Then he calmly exits and disappears into the city. In Jerusalem, Kassem (Amidou) is part of a group of Palestinian militants who set off a bomb at the Damascus Gate. His comrades are captured by the police, but Kassem escapes. In Paris, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is accused of fraud by the Paris Stock Exchange and given 24 hours to provide collateral to get the charges dropped. He tries to get his depressed brother Pascal to help him, and when his sibling fails to impress upon Victor that they have no financial avenues left open, he kills himself. Victor runs away into the darkness. Finally, in New Jersey, we watch an Irish gang rob a Catholic church connected to the Italian mafia. An argument breaks out in the getaway car, and they crash; the only survivor is the driver, Jackie (Roy Schieder). He also learns the priest they killed was the brother of a mafia kingpin. Jackie goes to a friend who provides him with papers to escape the country.
All four men will meet in the humid, dark jungles of Colombia. Laboring for poverty wages and forced to live in conditions unlike what they were used to in their previous lives, the men are backed into a corner. A man named Marquez approaches them with a deal. An oil well has exploded, and the fire burns uncontrollably. The best way of extinguishing the fire is to use some recovered dynamite to collapse the well. The dynamite must be carefully transported, split between two trucks in case one of them goes up in flames. The reward will be enough money to get out of the jungle and live somewhere comfortably. The men accept and begin a descent into Hell.
The title Sorcerer generated confusion at its release and in the following decades. I was one of those who, when I was young, thought it was a movie about supernatural things. The Sorcerer in the title refers to the name of Jackie’s truck in the film. That word has been painted on the hood of the vehicle. When director William Friedkin was scouting locations in Ecuador, he noticed how drivers would adorn these transport vehicles with spiritual ornaments and “power” words to protect against the harsh natural conditions they worked in. Friedkin named one truck Lazaro after Lazarus and the other Sorcerer as Friedkin associated it with an evil wizard using his power to ruin the lives of unsuspecting people, a manifestation of Fate. The film does evoke a sense of being at war with Nature itself, as the world begins attacking the trucks on their journey.
In Friedkin’s words, Sorcerer is a film about “the world [being] full of strangers who hated one another, but if they didn’t cooperate, if they didn’t work together in some way, they would blow up.” How relevant this idea is more than ever, in an age where some (workers’ unions) are showing promising growth while others (the vast majority of the American populace) are still more interested in snapping & biting at each other’s throats over scraps. I also think the film takes on a more critical context when we add the current global climate collapse ravaging the planet. As these men slowly drive their trucks through dangerous terrain, flooding rivers, and all the elements coming down upon them, their solidarity becomes even more critical for survival.
One way we justify our grievances and hatreds is to compartmentalize people into Other-ed groups. The film speaks to this in a scene during Victor’s prologue his wife shares a section from a French legionnaire’s memoir she has been reading. The particular story is about the officer weighing out whether or not to kill a civilian he suspects of being a plainclothes enemy. The officer kills the man, and Victor tells his wife that he must have been an enemy soldier then. She counters that “no one is just anything,” which is like a beautifully crafted bullet of truth that shoots us right between the eyes when we reach the harrowing final moments of the film.
That final act is one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen in a movie. Jackie eventually loses his mind, and we see the rest of the film through his shell-shocked, psychologically broken perspective. The environment around him goes from being a rough jungle to a near alien landscape, the sky taking on strange hues. Friedkin perfectly conveys the anxiety of this odyssey and the long-term effects. And in this director’s style, he can’t let his protagonist end the story on a happy note. Despite all of the struggle, the horrors witnessed, and the breaking of his mind, the universe is still brutal and will crush him when he thinks he’s beaten it all.
Sorcerer is one of those forgotten American film masterpieces, Friedkin’s follow-up to The Exorcist had the unfortunate Fate of being released one month after Star Wars. As we know, Star Wars came to dominate movie theaters on a level never seen before, and any film coming out in the wake of that was lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame because Sorcerer is a wonderfully constructed, directed, and acted movie for a grown-up audience about vital themes that run through all our lives. Thankfully, it seems Sorcerer is getting a round of appreciation in the last few years that, while decades late, is very well deserved.