Box Office Failures Week: Sorcerer (1977)

We, the music and film loving dorks at B&S About Movies, remember Sorcerer for Tangerine Dream’s accompanying soundtrack*, which served as the Krautrocker’s first Hollywood film score and ninth album overall. The law-degree carrying Hollywood bean counters remember Sorcerer as a $22 million picture that made $15 million during its initial release and ended up losing the studio $42 million in production costs.

While William Friedkin’s instant classics The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) raked in the cash and the critical raves, Sorcerer gained mixed to negative reviews on the worldwide critical front. Today, while it is critically lauded as one of Freidkin’s finest, and considered an amicable follow up to his influential hit, The Exorcist**, it bombed at the box office as result of Universal and Paramount underestimating the potential of 20th Century Fox’s new science fiction-fantasy that was released one month prior: Star Wars, George Lucas’s follow up to his own 1973 hit, American Graffiti.

Luckily, for Tangerine Dream the film’s poor critical showing didn’t trickle down to their soundtrack work. The album reached the U.S Top 200, a domestic-retail milestone for the band. In the U.K the album went to #25 on the charts and became their third highest-charting album. The critical and sales plateaus reached by the band with their soundtrack debut so impressed Hollywood, it led to the band’s fruitful career of soundtrack work.

As for William Friedkin: he bounced back with the Al Pacino-starring Cruising.

Sorcerer, in addition to poor scheduling, also suffered from bad casting choices. Reflecting on the film in the pages of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (a highly recommended read for you movie lovers), Friedkin believes he shouldn’t have done Sorcerer at all, once plans with Steve McQueen fell through, as the film’s leading role was written specifically for the Bullitt star. The fallout was the result of McQueen wanting his new wife, Ali McGraw (Convoy), to be either cast in the film or hired as an associate producer. Friedkin said no and McQueen left the project. While Roy Scheider recently came off the back-to-back hits of 1975’s Jaws*** and 1976’s Marathon Man (where he was only a co-star and not a lead), it wasn’t enough to entice ticket buyers, considering the rest of the cast were international names unknown to U.S domestic audiences.

Don’t be title and director duped: it’s not a horror movie.

While Friedkin disagrees with the assessment, this second adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s French novel Le Salaire de la peur (1950) carries the majority of critical opinion that Sorcerer is not so much a Friedkin reimaging of the novel than it is a straight remake of Wages of Fear (1953), the first film based on the novel. Initially conceived as a $15 million project, the film’s Dominican Republic shoot went “Heaven’s Gate,” near doubling its budget and required the resources of two studios—Universal and Paramount—to complete it.

Both of the Arnaud-inspired films are concerned with four unfortunate outcasts of varied backgrounds from around the globe running from their individual demons. They come to work together when they find mutual employment transporting cargoes of unstable, aged stocks of “nitroglycerin sweating” dynamite across a treacherous South American jungle. Sorcerer, as with Werner Herzog’s (excellent!) similar jungle romps Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo, is an intelligent thriller—beyond the usual Hollywood action tripe—that ponders the questions of man’s control over his own fate and the absurd situations one can find themselves cast as result of their poor life choices. It’s certainly an apropos lesson, considering this film’s fate and the effects it had on Friedkin’s post-Exorcist career.

While we look upon Sorcerer today as a forgotten masterpiece, it came at a price beyond the financial: In an Esquire magazine interview about the film, Freidkin stated he contracted malaria in the Dominican Republic jungles and fifty crew members had to be replaced for contracting gangrene and other various jungle-based diseases.

You can stream the film on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

* You can learn more about Tangerine Dream’s soundtracks with our “Exploring: Ten Tangerine Dream Film Soundtracks” retrospective.

** You can enjoy more Friedkin-inspired horror films with our “Ten Possession Movies that aren’t The Exorcist” retrospective.

*** If you missed it, be sure to check out our “Bastard Pups of Jaws” week and our “Ten Jaws Ripoffs” retrospective.

 

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