CS Soapbox: Star Wars Finally Pays Tribute to the Movie It Destroyed
George Lucas’ original 1977 Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope) is often unfairly blamed as the death knell of the New Hollywood Golden Age of the 70’s, when audiences for groundbreaking and important films the likes of The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Annie Hall were suddenly usurped by the feel-good blockbusters of Lucas, Spielberg and Zemeckis in the late 70’s and 80’s. While the assertion is debatable, there is one groundbreaking and important film that Star Wars had a direct hand in crushing: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, which opened one month after the space opera juggernaut on June 24, 1977.
Sorcerer was actually expected to be one of the big releases of that summer, coming from the director of smash hits The French Connection and The Exorcist, and starring Roy Scheider of Jaws fame. It was also a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s highly-respected 1953 suspense thriller The Wages of Fear, and was pre-booked to debut and play at Mann’s Chinese Theater directly following Star Wars. With a budget of around $22 million (large for that time, and twice that of Wars) it needed to take in around $50 million to break even, but audiences were perplexed by the movie.
With a title like Sorcerer many were expecting another intense exploration of the supernatural from Friedkin akin to The Exorcist, but were instead treated to a complex, often dour thriller with socio-political undertones and some very ugly/irredeemable characters driving trucks full of nitroglycerin through the harsh Latin American jungle. It was, in many ways, the exact opposite ride that the fairy tale Star Wars was delivering, and soon Mann’s very symbolically switched the films back out, with C-3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Vader sticking their footprints in concrete at the theater’s forecourt. Sorcerer bombed out and closed quickly across the country, grossing a paltry $5.9 million ($25 million in 2020), while Star Wars broke the bank with $307.3 million domestically (a staggering $1.3 billion in 2020 numbers, not counting numerous re-releases), becoming the most successful film of all-time.
To be fair, Sorcerer is not an easy film to digest, and has a very odd structure. Instead of hitting the ground running, it takes its time to introduce you to the four main characters (played by Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal & Amidou) in separate vignettes taking place in Mexico, Israel, France and New Jersey to give you an idea of how they all wound up in the hellhole village of Porvenir. The inciting incident, when an oil well explodes necessitating the nitro, doesn’t occur until 40 mins into the film, and Roy Scheider doesn’t turn the keys on his truck to begin the real journey until a little over halfway through the 2-hour runtime. Once the four desperate men begin their trek through the jungle the suspense is agonizing, with the drivers facing many obstacles including rough terrain, a rickety bridge during a thunderstorm (later parodied on The Simpsons) and a fallen tree, with every shake and jostle of their trucks a potential death sentence with the highly volatile material onboard. Without spoiling anything, the film -like Clouzot’s original version- ends on a pretty grim note.
While Sorcerer was not met well by critics at the time in comparison to The Wages of Fear, it didn’t get a true reassessment until years later when many (including author Stephen King) began to put forth the idea that it is actually BETTER than the 1953 French film. It was finally re-released on Blu-ray in 2014 to great fanfare, with many now considering it to be Friedkin’s finest hour.
All that said, it seems both ironic and weirdly appropriate that the world of Star Wars has finally paid tribute to Friedkin’s masterpiece in the latest Season 2 episode of Disney+’s The Mandalorian. Titled “Chapter 15: The Believer,” it concerns the title character heading off with a small band of outlaws including Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) and the prisoner Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr) to the mining planet of Morak. In order to get Moff Gideon’s coordinates to track down baby Grogu, Mando and Mayfeld hijack an imperial transport truck containing the explosive mineral rhydonium, which like the nitro in Sorcerer is highly volatile. Instead of a flask filled with water on their dashboard as in Friedkin’s film they have a very sci-fi digital readout that tells them when the material is too shaken up. Even as local pirates explode other trucks in front of them and eventually attack their own vehicle, Mayfeld cannot speed up or it could de-stabalize the rhydonium and blow themselves up.
The roughly ten-minute sequence in the 35-minute episode is as heart-pounding and Star Wars-y as any of the films in the Lucasfilm canon, even outpacing similar sequences in Solo: A Star Wars Story by the gritty atmosphere and clear stakes that writer/director Rick Famuyiwa expertly creates. It’s the perfect Star Wars version of Sorcerer, though, and owes a great debt to Friedkin’s film which it wears on its sleeve, proudly. It also provides good closure for the rough-around-the-edges character of Mayfeld, who appeared in Famuyiwa’s previous episode “The Prisoner” and would feel right at home riding in the cab alongside Roy Scheider as they plow through dirt roads and foliage.
In its relatively short time streaming The Mandalorian has paid tribute to many Spaghetti Western films like Django or The Dollars Trilogy, but this felt like a really smart appropriation that -without stealing a single shot or line from Sorcerer– managed to evoke the same mastery on display in that film and port it over to the science-fantasy world George Lucas created.