Sorcerer (1977)

For whatever reason I found myself interested in a 40-year-old thriller called Sorcerer, which turned out to be a remake of a European 1950’s thriller called The Wages of Fear. Whatever you want to call it, the film came out at perhaps an awkward time. It was released just a month after Star Wars came out, and became an instant phenomenon, and when that happened, films like this were left twisting in the wind, and thus Sorcerer, which was produced on twice the budget of Star Wars, failed to turn a profit, and was generally dismissed by critics. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s actually quite a good film. Not as good as I might have hoped, but still a good film.

The film’s story revolves around four men, each from different parts of the world, who are invariably forced to flee from their previous lives, assuming fake identities of course. They all end up meeting each other in the remote South American village of Porvenir, where they live in abject poverty and earn meagre wages. After a local oil well explodes, the men are hired by an American oil company to transport cargoes of nitroglycerin to the oil well using two trucks. If successful, they will be handsomely, but it’s a highly dangerous job and it’s likely that they might die.

With that in mind, why is the film called “Sorcerer”? Well, apparently one of the two trucks in the film is called “Sorcerer”, which I guess is a somewhat logical if silly reason to call the film Sorcerer. The other explanation comes from the film’s director William Friedkin, who links the title to one of the themes of the film. In his words, “the sorcerer is an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard is fate”. That’s quite a stretch, but it’s not uncommon for directors to have pretentious ways of rationalising batty artistic decisions. Friedkin isn’t the worst in that regard.

As for the story itself, the concept is actually quite good. It’s main focus is taking people of different backgrounds who hate each other, but not as much as having to work with them, keeping in mind that if they didn’t co-operate, they would surely die. This kind of story is guaranteed to have some drama and suspense. I also like how the film’s prologue shows you how the main characters got from where they were to where they are now.

That being said, my main issue is with the film’s rather slow pacing. Parts of the film end up being rather boring, but certainly not at the very end, and it does have some surprisingly explosive moments to keep you on your toes. The acting is very good, thanks to the casting of skilled actors such as Roy Scheider. With this film you can really get a sense of their emotions, and while no character is completely likeable, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that that’s pretty much the point. The film certainly succeeds in terms of its pessimistic atmosphere and its style. The film boasts a crisp look and sound, and benefits from skilful editing and tastefully professional shooting. Another highlight would be the film’s musical score, which comes courtesy of Tangerine Dream.

On the whole it was certainly an ambitious film, and quite a good one. In fact, William Friedkin wanted this film to be his legacy, but in a way he sort of had it, given that the film now enjoys cult film status. Ultimately the film’s chances of success were hindered mainly by the fact that it was 1977. If you didn’t go to see Star Wars, you went to see Smokey and the Bandit. Both were huge films that effectively murdered Friedkin’s Sorcerer in the box office, and there’s something symbolic about that. Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit symbolised the newly emerging blockbuster era, while Sorcerer was emblematic of the New Hollywood style of film-making. After 1977, the New Hollywood era would decline until its eventual demise in 1980, and the art of cinema would be the poorer for it. In a way, Sorcerer was the sacrifice on the altar of blockbuster cinema. Or perhaps I read into this sort of thing too much.

  • Score: 74%
  • Grade: C

Star Wars (1977)

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Before the immense merchandising juggernaut, before the nonsensical prequel trilogy, and before even the concept of blockbuster cinema, there was this refreshingly simple, yet explosively ambitious film that, back in its day, saw scores of people lining up around the block to see it. Though it certainly wasn’t the first blockbuster film, it may as well have raised the bar for the heights such films could achieve, and its mixture of sci-fi and heroic fantasy opened the door to new possibilities for both genres, and is only one of the special ingredients that made it an instant pop culture phenomenon. In every sense, this was a very visionary film, and that would only be a short description.

The film tells the now-familiar story of Luke Skywalker’s journey to assist the Rebel Alliance in its struggle against the Galactic Empire. It presents the classical conflict of good versus evil, echoing the time-honoured traditions of the heroic narrative, and yet presenting that in what was then a totally new context (with the Force being a new dynamic that makes it stand out). By now, pretty much everything about the story of Star Wars is so familiar that it’s almost like a folk tale that’s been passed down for centuries. That’s the power of Star Wars. Even if you hadn’t seen it, you’d know what the score was, and perhaps that’s partly because of its simple and very straightforward narrative. Put it simply, if you’re a student interested in studying narrative, I’d strongly recommend studying this film first.

Of course, I think the greatest part of the film is its characters – the classic cast of familiar characters. We all know them by now. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and all the rest. They all perform spectacularly, thanks to the well-selected cast of actors, which includes the magnificent James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, the late Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, and the prolific voice actor Mark Hamill as Luke. These characters have given us some of the most memetic quotations in movie history, and I think we all know why. It’s because the characters were so utterly memorable and likeable, and we’ve familiarized ourselves with this first Star Wars film over and over again. Of course, it’s also down to the nature of the performances. The characters are serious, but that’s not to say that it’s always that way. In fact, there’s a lot of humour going on as well, even if much of that comes from the film’s instantly recognizable droids.

The film also displays superb visual clout, and I say this not just because of the fantastic special effects, but also because of the world George Lucas had created. The deserts of Tatooine alone look like fine art, especially during that iconic scene where Luke gazes at the setting suns. While I’m talking about atmosphere, the music for the film is a fantastic compliment to overall tone of the film, which I’d say is comparable to an epic fantasy film. The special effects really come into play when it’s time for action. There are lights and explosions abound in this action-packed space opera, which at times, plays out like a comic book on screen.

If there’s anything at all I might criticize about this film, it’s that it leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s probably because George Lucas had more than one sequel in mind. Perhaps it was a good thing that the film didn’t explain everything, because in the end, the audience wanted more. If anything, the only other thing I could criticize is the fact that George Lucas kept editing the film. There’s a version of the film where Jabba the Hut was digitally inserted into the middle of the film, and it’s almost as though Lucas wasn’t happy with it. Then again, most of the people producing it thought it fail, and thankfully they were proven wrong. Whatever its very minor faults, Star Wars is and shall remain a masterpiece of cinema, and a reminder of why film is such a powerful art form.

  • Score: 95%
  • Grade: S