IN THE 10TH YEAR OF FOREVER
“No one is just anything.”
It’s something he half-hears, readying for the final day of life as he’s come to know it, before the discovery of his 15 million francs of fraud at his father-in-law’s brokerage house forces him to flee this life of sumptuous Parisian wealth. Before what money remains buys his way into the mudblood-soaked abyssal purgatory of Porvenir, a God-forgotten Latin American village populated by indigent locals and criminal expatriates willing to live in “a place nobody wants to look in” and be exploited by the American oil company that hungrily sucks Porvenir’s petroleum. Before he’s offered a chance of escape from Porvenir in a suicide mission with three other men, a series of uninterrupted struggles through hairpin turns, beneath torrential squalls, against local bandits, across a fucking failing rope-bridge, climaxing in a final, existential reckoning with forces of fate not cosmic but causal.
He stares into a gilded bathroom mirror, unaware of these horrors he has fated for himself, as his wife reads aloud from the memoirs of a “soldier-poet,” Col. Etienne DeBray of the Foreign Legion: Adventure and the Glory of Colonial France:
“When I lowered my hand the cannons would commence firing. I saw a woman carrying a jar on her head. In seconds my gesture would remove her from this world. Whose gesture would remove me? When, and how?”
“Did he lower his hand?” he asks, noosing a tie around his neck for this irrevocable day. When she affirms, he smirks “just another soldier” with derision, oblivious to the fateful ironies of cause and effect he is engendering in these very seconds, and the seconds to come, and those which have already passed, granular moments of choice and consequence coalescing to shape the nature of his inevitable end. His wife responds with her light chastisement—“No one is just anything”—before warmly gifting him a watch inscribed to celebrate their 10th anniversary, “the 10th year of forever.”
He will die under the name “Serrano” on the other side of the world. Those who know him there, and those who kill him, will not know him as this man that he was, as Victor Manzon. That identity of wealthy banker fraud was abandoned the moment he arrived in Porvenir under the assumed name he hoped would free him from his self-generated fate. And yet, it is that very fate that led to this life of “Serrano”—the road before him has been dictated by the paths behind, and Manzon’s fate finds him under any name, as he drives a rumbling and ramshackle truck through green jungle hell, waxing nostalgic about his wife and Paris to his riding partner, his fingers idly tracing the inscription of his watch. There is a simple, declarative pop, like a truck backfiring. Somewhere out in that hell, a man gestured, lowering his hand. A bullet was fired by just another soldier into one of Serrano’s tires, jarring the apocalyptically unstable liquid nitroglycerin his truck was carrying. Manzon and his partner die in a bloom of unholy fire.
Just another criminal to his countrymen, just another target to his killers, his story welds with that of his fellow drivers into an exploration of the mysteries of fate as a force less cosmic than existentially self-inflicted, and how lives spent trying to escape its grasp are only further ensnared in its grip.
~ ~ ~
In his 10th year of feature filmmaking, William Friedkin was trapped. Following the shock-success of the director’s Academy Award-winning NYC cop film The French Connection in 1971 and the inescapable horror of The Exorcist in 1973, the once-gritty blue-collar kid from Chicago was blinded by his own achievements, and their spoils. As he writes in The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, in his post-Exorcist celebrity he was “spending more time with lawyers and accountants than actors or writers…losing focus on the work and concentrating instead on the peripherals,” flying between coasts to buy antique furniture, ditching pickup basketball for tennis, dismissing such films as Jaws and scripts as Star Wars as pap, furthering the “disconnect between who I was and what I had become.” Swallowed by hubris, Friedkin had lost his way, convinced of his own artistic supremacy while somehow unsure of what to do next, how to top the cultural juggernaut of The Exorcist. In short, he was perilously close to becoming just another Hollywood fraud.
“My behavior during this period was erratic. I was at the edge of a cliff, and my demons were standing by, waiting to push me off.” So he gripped the familiar to keep from falling into the void: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear, one of the strongest influences on his own work. He began to fixate on the intricate and brutal thematic potential of its action-adventure premise—four penniless fugitives and strangers join together for a paid mission to drive two trucks of unstable nitroglycerin to extinguish an oil-well fire miles away. Despite the obvious fool’s errand of attempting to remake a classic film (even Clouzot was puzzled when Friedkin asked for his blessing), the path to a post-Exorcist masterwork became clear: “The film became an obsession. It was to be my magnum opus, the one which I’d stake my reputation. I felt that every film I’d ever made was preparation for this one.”
Its oblique title came from a Miles Davis album of the same name (“I originally wanted to call the film Ballbreaker, that was the first title”), and Friedkin’s assertion that a “sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil wizard is fate…The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof. And the idea that we don’t really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it.” Ironically, like the characters in the film, Friedkin would inadvertently create his own personal purgatory while attempting to dictate his fate with “my magnum opus,” crafting the form of his own doom by making “the most difficult, frustrating, and dangerous film I’ve ever made.”
~ ~ ~
Sorcerer begins with its title scrawled across the carving of a monstrous face in a jagged rock wall; wide-eyed and nostril-flared, the face is dominated by a fanged rictus of malevolent joy, coldly laughing at all it sees. Sneering just behind the title card, it is as if the film is not being named, but rather this laughing force; as if it is “Sorcerer.”
Much like The French Connection and The Exorcist, Sorcerer launches with an international prologue—however, unlike those earlier films, Friedkin’s hyper-ambition generated not one but four prologues charting each of its protagonists on their final pre-Porvenir days, with Manzon’s introduction running the longest. He’s next seen in his Latin American purgatory, coated in a sweat-slicked second skin of oils biological and geological, laboring for the rapacious U.S. oil company Corepet. Like everyone else in the village, he makes just enough money to survive, but not to leave. Like his three soon-to-be compatriots, his life is the existentialist’s fable: the struggle to escape one’s fate results only in deeper struggle, accentuated by the dawning horror that there is no better life to escape to. There is only Porvenir, and the choices that bring you to it. The obscene powers acting as enforcers of his fate—the oil company that subjugates with cruel wages; the fascistic local government that enforces that subjugation with violence mixed with zuch propaganda as “Unidos Hacia el Futuro!” (“United Towards the Future!”); the U.S. megacorp that owns Corepet and quietly runs Porvenir’s unnamed country—work in tandem to create a world from which there is no escape until death.
That is, until local mercenaries bomb a massive Corepet oil well 218 miles away. The well’s neverending spume of petroleum creates an almost biblically immense tower of flame that cannot be extinguished through any means beyond annihilation. To conserve money and salvage the oil production, a decision is made: four volunteers will be tasked with driving multiple cases of extraordinarily unstable nitro across the 218 miles of ruinous landscape to blow out the fire. Two trucks will be sent, just in case. The drivers—if they survive—will be paid enough to leave Porvenir and start a new, better life, and Manzon volunteers with three others to escape his doomed destiny. Together, he and his team of criminal expatriates take the two best junkyard trucks they can find, christening one as “Lazaro,” the other (Manzon’s) as “Sorcerer,” and set themselves to the task resurrecting the rusting hulks, constructing vehicles that will carry them on their fool’s errand to freedom and salvation.
~ ~ ~
To construct a cinematic vehicle capable of carrying him on his madman’s mission to remake a classic film into his own masterpiece, Friedkin began the creation of Sorcerer with one of the few lucky breaks in the film’s entire production—convincing The Wild Bunch scribe Walon Green to write it. Like Friedkin’s previous two films, Green’s Sorcerer script would couch its deeply-probing existential musings about individuals freely and unwittingly determining their own fates into the framework of a gritty, b-movie, in this case the “men on a mission” genre. With Green’s taut, bone-hard and unsympathetic screenplay, Friedkin assembled a murderer’s row of international talent for his cast: Steve McQueen, Marcello Mastroianni, Lino Ventura, and Amidou. Their presence kept Universal Pictures’ nervousness about the film’s growing budget at bay, as a cast this strong guaranteed international box office success.
And then: McQueen quit when Friedkin refused to involve his wife Ali MacGraw in the film; Friedkin reluctantly replaced him with Roy Scheider as the film’s American lead. Ventura then refused to cede top billing to Scheider and quit the role of Manzon the Frenchman, and was replaced with Bruno Cremer. Due to an ongoing custody battle, Mastroianni left the part of Nilo, an assassin, a role eventually taken by Francisco Rabal. Only Amidou remained, and the unbelievable roster of Who’s Who international marquee names quickly dissolved into Whoever’s Left. Sorcerer’s casting debacle would be only the first in an unceasing series of calamities Friedkin would be forced to endure to find his masterpiece, one of the myriad of setbacks that destroyed the film’s prospects of success.
Yet Friedkin persevered, convinced that he alone would be enough to make the film a hit. So sure was he of his vision—a brutalist action-adventure portraying existence as a purgatory between an unasked-for birth and a meaningless death dictated by fates of our own inadvertent making, wherein the only way to survive as long as possible is to work together—that he would drive his mind and body and cast and crew to their furthest limits to see it realized. Obsessed with manifesting Sorcerer’s message on film, Friedkin failed to see he was living that very message during its sanity-snapping production: that which is behind us cannot be returned to. All one can do is persevere for as long as possible into the fates that our pasts have shaped for us. There is only Porvenir, and the choices that bring you to it.
YOU’D NEED A SUICIDE JOCKEY
His name is Kassem when he is born, and his story within Sorcerer begins with a city-rupturing explosion in the Israeli West Bank of Jerusalem, where this young Palestinian terrorist and bombmaker has placed an explosive. From there, like the three fellow drivers he will meet in his Porvenir exile, his life will trace a darkly ironic arc, with the actions of his past fashioning his future, his fate made manifest by the same choices that lead him to it, and the actions he took to escape it.
His name is “Martinez” when he dies, and his story within Sorcerer ends with a mountain-puncturing explosion nearly 200 miles outside of Porvenir, where rebel terrorists fire a bullet into his truck tire, igniting “Martinez” and “Serrano” with jostled nitroglycerin. Like the Frenchmen, his fate finds him regardless of his new name—he is not just “Martinez,” just another terrorist, just another target. He is Kassem, and he has a life, and a story, and it is having that identity of Kassem that inextricably weaves him to that identity’s death, in which his life as a bombmaker ends with a lethal explosion. Fate finds him, and smiles.
The day this two-trucked Sisyphean journey began, Manzon named their battered 1950s GMC truck “Sorcerer,” and Frankenstein-welded the thick, protective grille of a Ford pickup to the front, one that strangely gives Sorcerer what resembles a toothy, gleefully hateful smile. Later, the two men barrel past the carving of a leering, monstrous face in a jagged rock wall; wide-eyed and nostril-flared, the face is dominated by a fanged rictus of malevolent joy, as if coldly laughing at all it sees.
~ ~ ~
Friedkin, by all accounts (including his own) became a tyrannical terror during the filming of Sorcerer. The budget swelled and forced Universal Pictures to join forces with Paramount Pictures to finance the film, which Friedkin insisted be shot on location in the jungles of the Dominican Republic. As the crew fell behind schedule while under siege by endless bouts of malaria, food poisoning, and gangrene (Friedkin himself would lose 50 pounds due to undiagnosed malaria left untreated until well after the film’s completion), the filmmaker fired five production managers in a row in pursuit of his vision, and his trusted line producer was forced to return to the States to avoid a divorce.
Meanwhile, the actors were doing excellent work, and Friedkin and cinematographer Dick Bush eagerly awaited seeing the first few weeks of daily rushes, which had to be flown to America for development and then sent back to the jungle to be reviewed. The prologue sequences in Paris, Jerusalem, Vera Cruz, and New Jersey were gorgeous. All of the jungle footage, though—the heart of the film—was unusable and underexposed, with Bush then arguing that lighting jungle locations was impossible and the film should be set-bound. Friedkin, already behind schedule, watching members of his crew fall victim to exhaustion, heat exposure, and tropical illness, angrily replaced Bush with John Stephens, and did the only thing left to do short of killing the film—persist. Armed with a new cinematographer, the cast and crew rolled the boulder of production back uphill and reshot the first few weeks of jungle footage all over again.
~ ~ ~
Early in the film, a Corepet man opines that “you’d need a suicide jockey” to drive trucks loaded with boxes full of sweating nitro across the unfriendly terrain surrounding Porvenir; only someone with a death wish—or a wish to escape death so overpowering that it paradoxically amounts to the same thing—would assume such a risk.
Of the volunteers, Kassem is the least frightened of death. A numbstare burnout haunted by the capture of his terror cell in Jerusalem, and his own wall-less prison here at the edge of the world, he is by far the most willing to risk destruction, pushing the truck far faster than it should go, taking corners with little regard for his or Manzon’s safety, pushing the vehicle and his body to their outer limits. It is not until the bridge, where death caresses him, that his eyes snap back from their watery stare to rapt focus.
During a cataclysmic tropical monsoon, the Lazaro and Sorcerer trucks come upon a fork in the road. Manzon insists on taking Sorcerer on the half-flooded low road as their maps instruct; the American driver of Lazaro risks taking the unmapped higher road, on which he is eventually forced to drive his rickety, two-ton rustmetal beast and its volatile cargo across a decaying, tension-frayed rope-bridge. The bridge buckles, sways, and vertiginously tilts as the Lazaro makes its way across, sometimes stretching so aslant that the Lazaro appears mere inches from falling sideways into the frothing, rock-studded rapids beneath. At an agonizingly slow crawl, the Lazaro makes its way across the sodden and splintering wooden panels as the bridge’s roped infrastructure shreds and unravels.
Minutes later, having taken a completely different road, Sorcerer somehow arrives at the same bridge. This repetition feels at least partly borne of prideful superciliousness—as if to say that the previous scene was so goddamn good that we’re going to do it again—but it’s also a necessary thematic resonance. It is as if this rope-bridge is one of life’s nerve-blasting hurdles that these men are fate-forced to repeatedly endure because of their decisions regardless of the path they choose to avoid it—no matter what road they take, fate will always end in the same place. It doesn’t matter if Manzon and Kassem take the mapped path instead of Lazaro’s blind high road—the Sorcerer’s smiling grille will take them to the place their pasts have fated. And that place is the swaying, ever-loosening rope bridge, upon which Kassem crawls on his hands and knees, testing the boards as Sorcerer creeps behind and nearly crushes him in the rain-blind chaos as the rapids hurl felled and jagged trees against Manzon in the cab. Sorcerer barely gets them across just as the rope-bridge unfurls completely and is washed away—like paths taken in the past, there is no going back. That which is behind cannot be returned to. They can only persist.
~ ~ ~
The gut-shredding rope-bridge set piece is the 12-minute centerpiece not just of Sorcerer, but of Friedkin’s career. In a filmography of death-kissing car chases and demonic horrors and the mysteries of faith, fate, and existence, no other moment more ably fuses the director’s audacity, skill, and thematic preoccupations into one thrilling, gear-grinding and engine-roared howl of cinematic perfection. $1 million of the film’s $21 million budget went to the bridge’s construction, with the carefully-devised structure augmented by hidden hydraulics to appear swaying and unsafe, and it took the crew three months to build it over a river in the Dominican Republic.
And then that river ran dry.
Due to abnormally low rainfall that year, the bridge location was now, to Friedkin’s horror, completely useless, and the studios demanded a simpler, different sequence be filmed in its place. Enraged, Friedkin terrorized the studios by dispatching crewmembers to Mexico to find a similar location in order to do it all over again. The bridge was then dismantled, sent to Mexico, and reconstructed over the Papaloapan River.
And then that river ran dry.
Somehow, again, the production had constructed the bridge in an area suffering an abnormally dry season. Desperate, Friedkin assembled piping and pumping equipment to flood the area, as well as a massive sprinkler system to add rain to a sequence never ended to take place during a storm. In the middle of organizing this massive crew effort to repeat what had already been done in the Dominican Republic, Friedkin was confronted with another blow. A Mexican Federale discovered drug use among members of the Sorcerer crew, and gave the director an ultimatum: send the offending crew members (including several grips, stuntmen, and the makeup artist) home immediately, or face imprisonment of the entire cast and crew, including himself. In a move of monumental desperation, Friedkin simultaneously sent the crewmembers back to the states, conscripted Mexican locals to join the production, and at a cost of $3 million and after several additional months of effort, filmed the most breathlessly tense sequence of his entire career, and one of cinema’s most immortally terrifying.
DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME?
Nilo’s story begins in Vera Cruz, where he coolly strides into a hotel room with a silencer-suppressed revolver and assassinates a man with a single gunshot.
Nilo’s story ends less than two miles away from the burning oil well, having bled out and died from a single gunshot wound.
Of the four drivers, he is the only one to arrive at Porvenir under his own name, and with a money-fat wallet. He sinuously winds his way throughout the village freely, no need for backsnap labor, somehow impervious to the bootsucking mud, the air thick with bugmugged humidity and the pneumonic wheezes of the dying. He blithely murders an original fourth volunteer driver so as to join the American driver in Lazaro. He does not need the Corepet reward money; he is an assassin and the American is his target. As such, he needs no alias to escape fate—he is fate’s agent here to murder the American, whose choices and past have engendered Nilo’s task.
Yet he never completes the hit. Inexperienced behind the wheel, Nilo is forced to rely upon the American to do all the driving, and assassination behind the wheel would risk igniting the nitroglycerine. On the bridge, the American relies upon Nilo, who sits outside on the jostling wooden panels, to help direct him (“We’re going across that bridge, and you’re going to guide me…because I can’t do it alone”). They form a strange symbiosis, both needing one another to survive this ordeal, as the only way to make it home will be to work together.
It’s something all four men discover after surviving the rope-bridge and the Sorcerer catches up with the Lazaro: blocking the sole remaining path to the oil well is a gargantuan mahogany tree, fallen and enormous. The tree is surrounded by deep swampland jutted with trees on either side. The path behind them is gone, washed away by the river. The only way out, as Kassem sees it, is through—together, he will teach the men to make a crude, tree-clearing bomb with some of the sweating nitro, a rock, and a bag of sand. The men must work together to construct it—the three expatriates are forced to cooperate even with Nilo, fate’s avatar, to survive, and he with them. The men must accept fate as an inchoate force in their lives before they can destroy yet another obstacle and move forward on the only path left for them.
~ ~ ~
“The premise [of Wages of Fear] seemed to me a metaphor for the countries of the world: find a way to work together or explode,” Friedkin noted in his memoirs, and in his near-maniacal dedication to Sorcerer’s completion, he would work with anyone to finish the picture. When filming the massive tree explosion that would free his characters to drive to the film’s final annihilative act, Friedkin’s special effects man rigged the giant mahogany to blow and—nothing. There was a pop, some bent twigs, and yet another failure-obstacle. With dwindling time, money, and healthy crew members, Friedkin contacted a friend from Queens: “Marvin the Torch,” a professional arsonist and insurance scam artist. With no qualms about working with a criminal, Friedkin flew “the Torch” to the Dominican Republic, and the arsonist worked with the Sorcerer crew to construct a makeshift bomb, and within one day the tree was obliterated, and Friedkin had the explosive footage he needed.
~ ~ ~
A guerilla soldier lowers his hand. Gunfire and Sorcerer’s nitro remove Manzon and Kassem from the world. The mountain road is rocked with a concussive, cratering boom that shocks the American in Lazaro, yet Nilo’s face is one of stone. As a man who’s living is made by bringing death to those who trigger it, such random, wanton violence does not surprise him. Nor does he seem surprised when the same guerillas next overtake Lazaro with submachine guns: this is the path he and the American have chosen to drive upon, one of violence and risk and death. And when the American beats one guerrilla to death with a shovel, Nilo kills the other three with his hidden handgun…but not before catching a single, fatal gunshot in the stomach. He dies slow, laying for hours in the floor of the Lazaro as the American pushes the truck forward in a frenzy, trying to keep Nilo focused and alive. Nilo begins to cackle coldly, his smile a rictus of teeth and blood—the stone wizard’s smile—joking that with the Corepet reward money he’s going to travel to Nicaragua’s capital city, where he’ll have “the best whore in Managua.” When the American suggests having two, Nilo tells the American he will have to go and do it for him, and dies in the Latin American badlands, without identification, an unnamed husk discarded by fate.
~ ~ ~
Despite Friedkin’s absolute commitment to Sorcerer, and his almost demoniac resilience during its making, the film’s failure upon release in 1977 should not have come as a shock to the director. Though he had poured as much of his mind, philosophy, and body into the film as any one director could (and far more than any director legally should), the coldness of his existential vision alienated filmgoers who longed for giddy adventure but instead found a tale of dread and pain, peopled by characters whose choices carve for themselves fates as cruel and bitter as the meaningless universe they inhabit. Audiences were turned off by the vagueness of the film’s title (many thought they were seeing an Exorcist sequel), the roughshod unlikability (at least initially) of the film’s murderous characters, and most especially the bleakness of the film’s interbraided structure and themes—its first half is slow and quiet, contemplating death and despair, while the breakneck second half makes those grim contemplations manifest, literalizing them with a succession of violent obstacles that lead only to more obstacles, or death, the film finally concluding that this is an empty, frightfully dangerous universe in which the only power over your fate is held in the past, by decisions you cannot undo, and one is left in the present with no choice but to suffer through the next struggle and the next and the next, until the death you cannot prevent.
While Friedkin had been busy toiling in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, a new kind of cinema was eclipsing darker fare like his own. One month before Sorcerer’s release, it dour and miserablist trailer, full of bloody character-actor faces and soundtracked by Tangerine Dream’s serpentine and Moog-smeared synthdread, was attached to a new film called Star Wars. Four weeks later, Sorcerer came and went without notice as the world, audiences, even critics were entranced by George Lucas’ profoundly different vision of the universe. The years of effort, the pain, the desperation, the diseases, the struggle, the friendships and partnerships destroyed—in the end, it amounted to nothing.
As Star Wars helped kill Sorcerer, with Sorcerer Friedkin killed the public perception of himself as a genius filmmaker in Hollywood. The streak of hits had been broken. He would continue to make films, but without the carte blanche his earlier successes had afforded him. With a single two-hour film, he had alienated two movie studios and burned every bridge possible with both his arrogance and his artistry. He no longer had limitless budgets, nor could he have any project he wanted. He was now alone, cruising the incurvating, arterial freeways of Hollywood, with only the body of Sorcerer, unwanted by audiences and discarded by fate, as his mute passenger.
UNIDOS HACIA EL FUTURO
(THE GETAWAY MAN)
“Where am I going?”
It’s something he barely seems to hear, despite saying it aloud to himself, on this final day of his desperate drive from Porvenir exile, after he and his Irish mob stickup crew bungled a church robbery and shot the priest brother of local Italian mafia don Carlo Ricci. After he earned a spot on Ricci’s “hit parade” and bought his way into a Latin American village positioned beneath a cataract of endless rain. After he took a chance to escape that purgatory in a suicide mission with three men who are now dead, through a series of uninterrupted struggles that brought them together, the storms, the bandits, the tree, the fucking bridge, and now this final, lonely existential reckoning with a fate not cosmic but of his own causing. He stares out past the windshield as he remembers the instructions given to him back in Jersey by his mob-connected friend Vinnie, after he had asked Vinnie, “where am I going?”:
“For $2,000 I’ll get you a passport…A good place to stay low. It’s the sort of place nobody wants to lookin’…Don’t mention my name. ‘Cause as of right now, I don’t know you and I don’t want to know you. I owed you a favor. This is it.”
In his previous life, Jackie Scanlon was a getaway driver, the wheelman for a crew of Irish hoods in New Jersey. When their unity dissolved over money and violence, all but Jackie ended up dead in a body-breaking car crash. It’s how he became “Juan Dominguez” in Porvenir, how he became not just a driver for Corepet but a getaway driver from fate itself. Yet wherever he drives, fate follows: the truck lumbering behind him is Sorcerer. His passenger is fate’s deliverer. And in the first hours of this psychotic odyssey, fate teased him: running along the Corepet pipeline that juts from the road like a winding scar was a local tribesman, his face wide-eyed and nostril-flared, dominated by a toothy smile of malignant joy—the face of the stone carving made flesh. The tribesman laughs and dances in Scanlon’s path, running circles around the truck, hanging off the back like a gremlin, before sitting in the center of the road, cackling and cackling at Scanlon’s efforts.
And now, as Scanlon drives through this last stretch of his suicide haul, the landscape twists and morphs to reflect his own half-mad state. He is sleep-deprived and adrenaline-drunk, haunted by the deaths of his fellow drivers and the inescapable cruelty of his fated journey, and the closest thing he has to a friend is the body of a dead man sent to kill him, lying bloodless on the floor of Lazaro’s cab. Barreling forward into the outer limits of sanity and the final miles of his journey, the jungle environs leech away into a surreal and arid badlands of strange, bone-white rock formations, a land without vegetation or wildlife, a land without life, beneath a purple-blue bruise of eternal twilight sky.
This is Sorcerer’s most evocative moment—even more than the rope-bridge—and the most definitive, transcendent manifestation of its thematic obsessions. Lost in a desolation of his own making, seen through the windshield of Lazaro, Scanlon is rocked by flashbacks of the events that led him to this place, as the windshield reflection of the lightning-blasted hell where he is headed rolls over his face. Where he has been dictates where he is going. He is not just anyone, not just a getaway man, not just “Dominguez”–he is Jackie Scanlon, and that has led him here to this final place, where he hears the cackling of fate in Nilo’s dead voice.
Lazaro’s mileage counter creeps up to 216.7 miles of its 218-mile journey…and then the truck coughs to a stop, out of gas. Another lifeless hulk in the land of the dead.
~ ~ ~
The decades following Sorcerer’s release were unkind to the film, and it became lost to a dusklit netherworld of arcane licensing rights in which neither Universal nor Paramount took responsibility for the film. Following its theatrical collapse, the film was pulled and shelved, and as the home video boom exploded over the following decade, Sorcerer was not to be found. No VHS, no laserdisc, it was as if the film never existed. Both studios denied owning cassette rights, with Universal’s house counsel suggesting that solving the holdup wasn’t worth it as Sorcerer was not “commercially viable.” It became a forgotten film, and its creator remained a working director who would always be known as the man behind The French Connection and The Exorcist.
Finally, 1990 saw the release of a poorly pan-and-scanned full-frame VHS and laserdisc, shoddy and piss-poor hackwork that presented an amputated version of Friedkin’s masterpiece, his years of obsession and work left mutilated and only half-realized by these limited formats. A similarly ugly and cropped DVD was released eight years later, sold poorly due to lack of demand, and all three versions of the film quietly slipped out of print. Sorcerer became just another title in cinema’s land of the dead.
~ ~ ~
From the oil-black nowhere of endless night, a figure staggers and stumbles forward, sun-scarred skin stretched over a skeletal and shattered frame. The ropey and nervenumbed body nearly topples with every footbloodied step after exhausted step and in the figure’s arms is a single wooden box, and inside the box is death, but also life—it is the sweating, dangerously unstable explosive that will kill the well-fire and bring Corepet employment back to Porvenir, as well as enough reward money to finally elude fate. “Dominguez,” Scanlon, whatever name he chooses, will finally be free. The box jostles in his arms, swaying back and forth like a loose-roped and unstable bridge. The flame-pillar looms before him, and what is left of his muscle memory and his sleep-starved mind carries the box right to its air-shimmered threshold before men in Corepet hardhats frantically wrench it from his arms. He continues on, hardly noticing, entranced by this burning tower of light his fate has led him to, and he collapses at its edge.
~ ~ ~
Decades later, in 2011 and long after Sorcerer had gone out of print on every home video format, Universal and Paramount stopped leasing the 35mm print of the film for revival house theatrical exhibition, both studios disowning the film and refusing to inquire further into the matter. With that joint decision, Sorcerer was essentially lost, just another Hollywood misfire to be forgotten.
Only Friedkin hadn’t forgotten. Despite being some 35 years older than the gifted, arrogant young man who made the film, Friedkin retained some of the mischievous fire that drove him to the edge with Sorcerer, and he sued both Universal and Paramount Pictures. The lawsuit was not for profit, but for “discovery”—the records-scouring process by which he could learn, finally, who owned his best, most devastating film. Upon learning Paramount was the theatrical rights holder, the inimitable, seemingly-inexhaustible Friedkin set himself to the task of restoring every single frame of his magnum opus, restoring the picture to an eye-blistering vividness and the sound to eardrum-caving glory. Paramount began to cooperate, re-releasing the film into theaters, while Warner Bros. also took interest, and assumed control of home video and streaming rights, multiple studios once again uniting with Friedkin to ensure Sorcerer’s future. Almost 40 years after the film’s release, Friedkin took one final, frantic lurch forward with his beloved film and managed to get away with it, carrying it out of the dark and into the projected light of the theaters to which it belonged.
A gorgeous, non-cropped Blu-ray release soon followed. A new generation of filmgoers experienced Sorcerer for the first time, and critical reevaluation recognized its standing as Friedkin’s battered but brilliant masterpiece. Audiences finally respected the film for what it was: Friedkin’s existential metaphor for the journey of life—the struggle to survive, to persevere and make it through life’s purgatorial punishments, the need to cooperate with others in order to escape fate as long as possible and extend this ruthless journey long enough to do something of value and worth, and to carry that worthwhile endeavor forward to the very edge of the fire. To be more than just anyone.
And with his talent, his drive, his narcissism, his obsession, and his resilience, Friedkin succeeded in bringing Sorcerer back. “I had persevered to make a film that I would want to see, a relentless existential voyage that would become my legacy,” he declares in his memoirs. Its creation exacted a terrible price on his body, his ego, and his career, none of which were the same after it was finished; its failure closed a myriad of paths his life could have taken. But, as Friedkin would likely argue, this is the fate he shaped for himself.
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A man called “Juan Dominguez” sits in a Porvenir bar, his sad, heavy eyes peering out from a face clouded with a nebulae of purpleblack bruises. A Corepet man passes him a check for $40,000, his share of the reward plus the shares of three dead men. Enough money to escape Porvenir, to escape the identity of Jackie Scanlon, to escape fate. But his heart-cracking stare belies something deeper, a hard-earned knowledge about where one can and cannot go in this life and world. Even with $40,000, he cannot go back—there is only the shape of things to come, a shape fashioned by the past he can never change.
When the Corepet man suggests he take some time to experience Managua, Jackie Scanlon’s face crumbles at the thought of the place he and Nilo could have gone together, a place and path now ruined and inaccessible to him. “Managua? Shit. There’s no way I can go to Managua.” The Corepet man shrugs, and hands Jackie an envelope—it’s a letter from Manzon to his wife, to be posted if he died behind Sorcerer’s wheel. Jackie pockets it, the lines in his face deepening to chasmic faults as he stares past the front doors, into the oblivion of waiting fate, perhaps weighted with the thought that the “evil sorcerer” isn’t a cosmic force, but rather something internal, intrinsically wedded to who we are. Just the accretion of every moment and step and choice and mile on the road of life builds our identities, they also engender a chain of events, chains that bind us to self-made fates that all end in the same place, the same inevitable broken bridge.
And perhaps it’s a thought “Juan Dominguez” tries to brush away as the plane that will fly him from Porvenir and the fate of a man named Jackie Scanlon waits at the nearby airstrip. He sadly slow dances with the village’s lone barmaid, an old and bone-knotted woman whose face is as creased with the same knowledge as his own. In his hesitation, it is as if he knows the plane will carry him to Jackie Scanlon’s fate no matter where he goes.
And so he holds the woman, dancing and waiting for what will come. Outside, a taxi arrives. From it steps Jackie Scanlon’s friend Vinnie, the man who sent him to Porvenir. With him is a soldier for Carlo Ricci, the man with a price on Jackie’s head. They enter the bar just as a heavy truck resembling Sorcerer passes by. It is followed by a simple, declarative pop, like a truck backfiring.
The passing truck carries a group of armed local soldiers to some dark duty, to remove others from the world when the gesture is given. As they roll past the bar, perhaps one of soldiers even wonders who will remove him when the time comes. When, and how.
The truck rumbles onward, down a chewed and beaten road. There is no way to go back. All one can do is persevere for as long as possible into the fates that our pasts have wrought. There is no way to Managua. There is only Porvenir, and the choices that bring you to it.