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“Whose Gesture Would Remove Me?” Fate and Chance in Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear

“You going to tell me where I’m going?”

“I swear to Christ, I don’t know.”

The fates seemed aligned against William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

The very idea of the film was an act of hubris, with Friedkin daring to remake one of the classics of world cinema. The Wages of Fear is justifiably regarded as one of the best movies ever made, and so for an American director to assume that he could remake it in his own image felt like an act of arrogance. Sorcerer often felt like a doomed project, suffering from wound both rooted in Friedkin’s self-regard and resulting from broader cultural trends.

Friedkin’s refusal to compromise cost the movie a bankable leading man in Steve McQueen, something that Friedkin regrets to this day. The decision to shoot on location South America led to a ballooning budget, conflicts with cast and crew and a variety of logistical difficulties. Friedkin refused to compromise with the studio during production, being openly antagonistic when they offered notes. The decision to open the movie with seventeen minutes of subtitled prologue may have alienated audiences, along with the use of title that conjured images of an Exorcist  sequel.

Perhaps all of this was meaningless. Maybe there was nothing that Friedkin could have done during the production of Sorcerer would have made a difference. After all, Sorcerer had the misfortune of opening a week after Star Wars. George Lucas’ science-fantasy epic obliterated the more restrained and more cynical film. It’s debatable to what extent Steve McQueen’s face on a poster or more favourable reviews in the papers might have helped. Friedkin’s career might have fared better after the failure if he’d been easier to work with, but it seems the film itself was always doomed.

In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate. Sorcerer is a story about a vindictive and mean-spirited universe, one that seems actively antagonistic towards the characters who inhabit it. Sorcerer is a story about the whims of fate, and the inescapability of destiny, populated by characters who are doomed long before they sign on to a suicide mission to transport highly volatile dynamite across the Amazon. It seems entirely reasonable that Sorcerer itself would be just as ill-fated as any of its central characters, just as subject to the sinister machinations of a cruel world.

However, all of this gets at the most interesting aspect of Sorcerer, the part of the film that is most distinct from The Wages of Fear. The film is definitely a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic, but it does what most truly great remakes do: it finds a fresh angle on the same basic source material. In many ways, The Wages of Fear is a uniquely European blockbuster that exists in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War. Sorcerer is undeniably an American movie, one that insists on finding order in the chaos of the turbulent seventies.

There are numerous small differences between Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear, which makes sense. The basic premise of the two movies is strong enough to sustain multiple interpretations. After all, there’s something inherently exciting about a small group of characters driving gigantic bombs through the wilderness, aware that they might explode at any moment if even the slightest thing goes wrong. There are so many things that you can do with those characters, so many ways things can go wrong, that a generic shot-for-shot remake would be a waste of that narrative hook.

The Wages of Fear is defined largely by its sense of powerlessness. The central characters are all trapped in the small South American town of Las Piedras. The opening hour of the film basically circles them, allowing the audience to get a sense of who these people are and how they came to be. Most of the characters in Las Piedras have resigned themselves to a long-term stay in the village, accepting that escape is all but impossible.

There are exceptions, of course. The mysterious Joe has just flown in from Paris. He still has enough spending money that he can live a lavish lifestyle, although he’s barely adjusted to life in Las Piedras before his very stylish suit is ruined. Joe seems to believe that Las Piedras will only be a temporary situation for him. He strikes up a friendship with Mario, a man who has been there much longer, and who explains that there is no escape.

The other character who longs for escape is an innocent young man named Bernardo. Bernardo is saving up money so that he might possible emigrate. He is much more enthusiastic and excitable than the primary characters, filled with the joys of youth. The cynical Bimba seems to have warmed to Bernardo, but warns him against getting his hopes up and boasting so openly. Joe has little time for him. Bernardo’s story comes to an end when he is not chosen for the central mission. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Bernardo hangs himself out the back of the local bar.

In The Wages of Fear, death is the only escape. Joe murders one of the drivers to take his place on the mission. Mario believes that the money will finally allow him to leave town. His roommate Luigi correctly identifies the journey as a suicide mission, but has no choice. Diagnosed with a fatal lung condition, Luigi has to give up his profession bricklaying and so has no other viable options. Bimba seems to take the job as an expression of his own resignation to death. Recalling the death of his families at the hands of the Nazis, he seems to have lost any lust for life.

All four of the primary characters in Wages of Fear die over the course of the film. More than that, their deaths seem meaningless and arbitrary. Towards the end of the journey, Bimba and Luigi blow up with absolutely no warning or explanation. Their death is witnessed by Mario and Joe from the distance. “What happened to them?” asks Mario, as the pair arrive at the point of the explosion. “I don’t know,” Joe responds. “We’ll never know. Even they don’t know.”

Joe is correct. It’s interesting to speculate on what might have caused the explosion. Shortly beforehand, Bimba siphoned off some of the nitroglycerine to demolish a bolder blocking their route. Perhaps that allowed some air in one of the tanks, allowing for the nitroglycerine to splash and explode. Perhaps the canister was carelessly replaced afterwards, and so could be jostled. Perhaps Bimba and Luigi simply hit a bump or a pot hole. Perhaps a bird or wild animal swooped out of nowhere. Maybe a tire burst. The Wages of Fear offers no explanation.

This detonation leads directly to the death of Joe. The explosion from Bimba and Luigi’s truck blew open an oil pipeline, which promptly flooded the crater created by the explosion. The result is a lagoon of crude oil. Joe tries to guide Mario through that lagoon, only to end up crushed beneath the wheels of the truck. Joe is essentially murdered by Mario. “You knew you were running over me and you went right ahead,” Joe protests. Mario responds, “I had to.” In fact, Mario’s slight hesitation at crushing Joe beneath the truck almost gets him stuck in the crater.

As Joe lies dying, he and Mario reminisce about their (separate) memories of Paris. Mario prompts Joe, trying desperately to keep him awake and alert. He asks Joe to remember a particular street, and the shops on it. Joe fixates on the fence that had been put up along the street.  Mario wonders what is on the other side of that fence, which seems a loaded question given that Joe is about to “shuffle off this mortal coil” and embark on a journey to “the undiscovered country.” Before he dies, Joe has a terrible realisation. “There was nothing,” he states. “There is nothing.”

This nihilism is perhaps best expressed in the movie’s ending. Mario manages to get the truck to its destination, collapsing into a heap on the ground. He receives his payment. He is offered a driver to take him back to town, but he declines. As he drives back to Las Piedras, he freewheels. He is just happy to be alive. He zigs and zags wildly as the Blue Danube plays on the soundtrack. Inevitably, Mario loses control of the truck. It careens out of control. Mario is thrown to his death. This is the end. “Fin.” It is almost comically bleak.

The Wages of Fear has been defined as anti-American, with Time Magazine going out of its way to describe the film as “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made.” It’s certainly true that the film is critical of American foreign policy, of the cynical exploitation of indigenous populations by capitalist interests. “Wherever there’s oil, there’s Americans,” muses Mario. He’s not wrong. However, this cynicism is more complicated than that. After all, the American character of O’Brien is shown to be more than just a stereotypical money-hungry capitalist.

O’Brien understands the necessity of the mission, and the pragmatic justifications for exploiting the desperation of the residents of Las Piedras. However, he is not a monster. Speaking to his fellow oil executives, he warns them, “You’re gonna pay them! And what’s more, you’re gonna thank them for it!” While he responds to the low odds of success and high likelihood of fatalities by insisting that the company “will keep trying until they get though”, he is also capable of small gestures of compassion. He tries to spare Joe from the mission, and reassures Bimba after an early scare.

It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that The Wages of Fear is an anti-American film in the way that it rejects so many of the norms of American cultural hegemony. In some ways, this attempt at an international blockbuster might be read as a response to the American films that flooded European cinemas after the Second World War – smashes like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. After all, the film was a truly international production – it was shot using multiple languages, primary cast members from across the continent, in Spain with a French director.

However, The Wages of Fear exists in stark contrast to the American films of that era. The film has been described as “the callous post-World War II flipside to Casablanca.” This is reflected in a number of ways, from its flagrant sexualisation of Linda to its comfort with the implied homoerotic charge between Mario, Luigi and Joe. This is a film that exists very much in contrast to the self-censorship of the Hayes Code, grubby in a way that very few contemporaneous American films would ever have allowed themselves to be.

There’s more to it than that. The Wages of Fear is told from a perspective that aligns more closely with European than American perspectives on the fifties. The fifties were a prosperous and successful decade for America. Coming out of the Second World War, it seemed like “the American Century” could truly begin. While the Cold War was fermenting and building, at least there was a sense of empowerment. If the world did end, as many believed that it might, at least there was a fifty-fifty chance that America’s finger would be on the trigger.

Europe was in a very different position. To a certain extent, Europe had seen the end of the world already, with the fire bombing of cities like Dresden, the incredibly high casualty figures and even an attempted genocide. Europe found itself operating as a chess board in a game between Russia and the United States, dependent on huge amounts of foreign aid to climb back to its feet. Europe would emerge as a global power, but not until years after The Wages of Fearwith the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and with France developing its own atomic bomb in 1960.

This powerlessness is arguably a marker of major European cinema during the fifties. The Seventh Seal similarly depicts a ravaged continent caught in the midst of an apocalyptic horror from which there is no escape and over which there can be control. This anxiety permeates The Wages of Fear, a film about how death and destruction are constant and inescapable companions, and that nobody has any real control over the nature or the timing of their death. The workings of the universe are arbitrary and random, its inhabitants subject to its capricious whims.

This is the biggest thematic point of divergence between The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer. While The Wages of Fear was written from a European perspective in the early years of the Cold War, Sorcerer arrived in the chaotic seventies. America was still reeling from the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam. The economy had collapsed. Oil prices were soaring. The utopian fantasies of the sixties had congealed into the stuff of nightmares. However, America was still America. There was still a sense of purpose and destiny. “God has approved our undertaking.”

This sense of destiny defines Sorcerer. While The Wages of Fear was a bleak and nihilistic story about the random nature of an uncaring universe, Sorcerer suggested that the universe has a narrative arc. This is most obvious in the structuring of the two films. The Wages of Fear spends an hour building the relationship between its four lead characters before putting them in the trucks, as if to suggest that their lives before their arrival in this small little village were entirely meaningless. In contrast, Sorcerer has its characters come to the village with baggage.

Sorcerer contains a set of four extended prologues, introducing each of its four lead characters. Nilo murders a man in Veracruz. Kassem orchestrates a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. Manzon is caught in an attempted bribery scandal in Paris. Scanlon is the sole survivor in a botched New Jersey robbery that provokes the wrath of the local mob. All four men find themselves drawn to South America, whether by choice or by chance. These introductory sequences provide a clear sense of who these characters are outside of the basic plot of the film.

However, they are also loaded with irony. Nilo is introduced shooting a man, and ultimately dies from a gunshot wound to his stomach. Kassem is introduced helping to plant a bomb, and ultimately dies in a gigantic explosion. Manzon is introduced receiving an anniversary gift from his wife and ruminating on her work on a book about a soldier whose “gesture” erases an opponent from the world, only for Manzon to die when a soldier shoots out the wheel of his truck as he contemplates that gift from his beloved.

Scanlon is perhaps the most obvious example of this sense of fate or destiny. There’s very little sense in The Wages of Fear of why these four men should be so perfectly suited to the job of driving the dynamite, with the possible exception of Bimba, who operates the town mail truck. In contrast, Scanlon seems fated for this sort of work. Before he lands in South America, he is a getaway driver. Auditioning for the job, the oil company supervisor is impressed. “Teamster?” he asks. Scanlon replies, “Greyhound.”

Of course, Scanlon cannot escape his fate. The irony of his arc is that Scanlon ultimately drives his way back to the film’s ending. In the film’s final scenes, Scanlon takes a moment to enjoy the comforts of a local bar. As he does, a taxi pulls up outside. Out steps the man who arranged his escape and one of the mob lieutenants from the early scenes. They walk into the bar. There is a sound that Friedkin insists is a truck backfiring. Whatever happened, it’s clear that Scanlon cannot escape his destiny.

For Friedkin, this is the central theme of the film. As much as the title Sorcerer is taken from the name of Kassem and Manzon’s truck, the one that explodes, it also applies thematically. As Friedkin explains, “The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil Wizard is fate, it’s more a film about fate and about the mystery of 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 or something.”

The characters in Sorcerer all want to believe that they have a plan. While most of the characters in The Wages of Fear have resigned themselves to life in purgatory, characters in Sorcerer move with a greater sense of purpose. Manzon pawns his beloved watch to try to raise enough money to get to the next stage of his escape. Kassem is making similar plans. Nilo has only arrived in the small village, it is implied, as the hitman tasked with finding and eliminating Scanlon. Only Scanlon seems to accept that he is stuck there, and turns out to be the only man for the job.

The irony of Sorcerer is that the film very clearly and very consciously believes that world operates according to a plan. It’s notable that the oil well fire in The Wages of Fear was an accident, while the similar inciting (and incendiary) incident in Sorcerer is the result of a terrorist attack. It just keeps that plan concealed from its characters. None of the four major characters in Sorcerer ever completely understand what is happening, even as the film provides enough information to the audience that they might understand what is going on.

It is never explicitly stated that Nilo is the assassin hired by the gangsters to track down Scanlon, “the best” who operates from “the outside”, but it is heavily implied. Manzon and Kassem never get a chance to appreciate what caused their tire to burst before they go careening off the road, even if Scanlon and Nilo discover the body of a dead soldier nearby that answers the questions. The local militia assures Scanlon and Nilo that everything will be okay in English, even as subtitles reveal the plan to murder these two foreigners in the middle of the road.

While the characters in The Wages of Fear mostly know one another before embarking on their mission, Sorcerer keeps its leads at arms length. The only two of the original drivers who are on friendly terms are Kassem and Marquez – “the German” who is murdered by Nilo to earn his place on the job. Scanlon and Manzon have a brief interaction, but it is not a meaningful one. “Are you his friend?” the immigration authorities ask Manzon as they arrive to interrogate Scanlon. “No,” Manzon responds.

However, despite this anonymity, Friedkin repeatedly insists that the characters are drawn together. Although unknown to one another, the four men frequently share the same space and the same shots. In lead up to the job, the camera keeps on finding these four characters over and over again within the same takes, passing by one another or narrowly missing one another. The inference is clear. These four men are tied together, even if they do not realise it. Fate has brought them together, for some sinister purpose.

This is perhaps most explicit in the film’s most iconic sequence. Sorcerer is best known for its dramatic rope bridge sequence, which is one of the highlights of seventies cinema and enough to merit the film’s rediscovery and reappraisal on its own terms. The production is astounding and incredible, and it is a powerhouse section in the middle of the film. It’s notable that Friedkin actually plays the scene twice; the audience watches Scanlon and Nilo cross the bridge, and then watches Manzon and Kassem navigate it.

It’s tempting to write this off as hubris on the part of Friedkin, an example of the excess baked into the movie, an act of vanity or ego. After all, the sequence is so fantastic that it’s easy to justify doing it twice. However, it also serves a clear thematic purpose. In a scene shortly before they come to the bridge, Scanlon and Manzon clash over the direction of their journey at a fork in the road. Rain is pounding down. The sign in the middle of the road is broken. The only indigenous person to hand is refusing to provide a clear answer about the path they should follow.

Manzon argues that they should follow the map, and take the low road. Scanlon protests that the rains will have turned the low road into a swamp, and that they should deviate and take the highroad. The two find themselves at an impasse, and eventually agree to go their separate ways. Scanon takes the high road, and Manzon takes the low road. However, in the world of Sorcerer, such decisions are entirely meaningless. Both characters end up where the universe wants them to be. No matter which road they took, the two men end up facing the same swinging rope bridge.

Sorcerer insists that there is always a plan. There is always destiny. There is always some intelligence guiding the forces that flow through the world. It might be alien, it might be hidden, it might be hostile – but it is always there. Sorcerer is much more poetic and ironic film than The Wages of Fear, one that believes in some greater design than the arbitrary forces of nature. It is better to believe that the universe is antagonistic than to accept that it is meaningless.

This creates an interesting dissonance between the two film, and allows Sorcerer to exist as more than just a reiteration of The Wages of Fear. Instead, Friedkin offers a response to it. The Wages of Fear captures the mood of fifties Europe in a very vicious manner, while Sorcerer speaks to the anxieties of seventies America. There’s something beautiful in the repurposing of the same basic story to two very different ends. One might even describe Sorcerer as a kind of magic.

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