Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sorcerer: a film commentary

Warning: I reveal significant events and the ending for the following work.

is the classic example of what happens when Hollywood decides to remake a highly successful film: the result is a film usually considerably less than the original, which makes me wonder why it was remade. So far, I have found only one remake that is superior to the original version--Gaslight. I have heard that two versions of The Maltese Falcon came out before the one starring Bogart, and that all comments I have heard suggest the Bogart version is superior to the first two. I have them in my queue and will shortly view them. There probably are others that I haven't seen or heard of, and I would be interested in hearing about them.

This remake takes a highly successful and one of the most tension-filled and suspenseful films I have ever seen, Wages of Fear, and improves it into a slightly above average action film. About two weeks ago, I posted some commentary on this film and ended by remarking that I was curious about the remake. Unfortunately Sorcerer was no better than one could expect of a remake.

The cast, of whom I'm familiar only with Roy Scheider, who, along with the rest, gives us more than adequate performances.

The plot of Sorcerer remains essentially the same. Those fighting an oil field fire need explosives to bring the fire under control. The only explosives are several hundred miles away and must be transported by trucks over back country roads that most four-wheel drive vehicles would have some problems with. The explosives have aged and therefore are apt to go off if jarred or shaken. Four drivers, attracted by the large wages, in two trucks leave on what is essentially a suicide mission.

There are several problems with this remake. One of them involves the background of the characters who end up in this small poverty-stricken village somewhere in South America. In the beginning of the original, Wages of Fear, we meet a number of the inhabitants of this village and gradually four, who are obviously foreigners, begin to stand out among the rest. We don't know how they got there or even much about them or their past history; that is left up to our imaginations.

The first "improvement" consists of giving the viewer specific incidents in the pasts of each of the four characters that forced them to go flee in order to prevent being killed or imprisoned for a variety of crimes. This, however leaves gap between the time they flee and their appearance in this small out-of-the-way village. How did they get here? In one case, a character's appearance is extremely puzzling. He was apparently a Palestinian who was captured by Israeli forces in Jerusalem after setting off a bomb. Since he was captured, it seems highly unlikely that he would end up in a small village in South America. This struck me as unrealistic or improbable, and that carried through, unfortunately, for the rest of the film.

The second problem and most serious problem was the nature of the crises the drivers faced.
In Wages of Fear, the problems the drivers encountered were those one might reasonably expect to face on a poorly maintained road: construction areas making it difficult to maneuver, a washboard road, and a large boulder blocking the road on a mountainous stretch, among others. None of these would be considered an especially hazardous situation except for the highly unstable explosives.

Unfortunately, this wasn't enough, so the director, William Friedkin decided improvements were needed here. Driving over ten or more miles of a washboard road with unstable explosives wasn't considered sufficiently hazardous, so that was dropped. It was replaced by crossing over a flood-swollen stream on a cable bridge. That both trucks got over the stream on this bridge that shouldn't have supported a motorcycle simply was beyond belief. I read science fiction and some fantasy, so I can willingly suspend my disbelief, but this was going too far.

The second crisis "improvement" consisted of an encounter with the cliche of cliches--the bandits. The truck was stopped by bandits who were going to kill Scheider and his partner, but in true Hollywood fashion, all four were killed by the drivers who had only one pistol while all four were armed, some with what appeared to be semi-automatic weapons.

The third improvement was the elimination of the original film's focus on the drivers. In Wages of Fear, the director spent considerable showing the viewers how this dangerous trip affected each of the four drivers--each driver attempting to deal with his fear in a different way. In Sorcerer, this almost completely disappeared as the director focused on the events rather than on the characters. I think this also was a major factor in the reduction of the film to a rather mundane action film. Viewers get their cues about what to feel and how to respond from many sources in the film--from the music for one, from the events for another, and very importantly from the characters' responses to the events. Ultimately, eliminating the characters' responses from the film significantly reduces the emotional impact on the viewers.

Not being content with this, Friedkin decided to improve the ending also. What is wrong with a truck slowly creeping in to its destination with a driver desperately trying to stay awake, accompanied by the body of the other driver? Instead, we find the driver stopping and leaving the body on the side of the road. The engine dies, and the driver tries to start it once or twice. In the beginning of the film we learn that the Scheider character is not only an experienced truck driver but also a mechanic. Perhaps I missed something here, yet we don't see him even lift the hood to discover the problem. Having him run out of gas two miles from his destination is really weak. In any case, he takes one of the cases of explosives and staggers the last two miles to the oil field--waving and shaking the volatile explosives as he goes. Regardless of the problem, why didn't he just leave the truck and the explosives and walk to the oil field and let them know where it was?

The ending of Wages of Fear wasn't sufficiently ironic, so that had to be modified also. Instead of getting careless in his joy at surviving and about to have more money in his pocket than he's seen in a long time, the Scheider character returns to the small village and celebrates with the villagers and a few mine officials, shortly before he leaves. As the camera pulls back from the cantina where the celebration is being held, the viewer sees two well dressed men approach the place. They are hit men who have been looking for the Scheider character and just happen to show up at this time.

How ironic!

Overall rating: adequate. The positive rating comes primarily from the cast, who never really got a chance to show what they could do.


  1. It's been a long while since I've seen "Sorcerer", and after this review I don't think I'll bother to watch it again. Sometimes if you see one version of a film it kind of ruins the viewing of the other version, especially if it's a suspense or mystery film.

  2. Seeing another version certainly gives one a different way to watch and evaluate a film. Perhaps it's not really fair as some say a film should be judged solely on its own merits. On the other hand, it is a remake, and I think, therefore, that comparisons are legitimate.

    I agree that it's especially hard on suspense or mystery films because one of the important issues is the unknown ending. I have seen _Wages of Fear_ twice now, and I found the second viewing as tension-filled as the first, even though I knew what was coming. That is a function of the way the film was made.

    If you have the time and the inclination, I would suggest watching both and seeing what your reactions are.