Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.

One of the quintessential American directors of the ‘70s, William Friedkin is a man who made his name by imitating great directors and is now himself greatly imitated. In his heyday, like most of the American film brats of his generation, Friedkin was a dedicated acolyte of the best European movies produced in all of the years before he began directing. So after conquering Hollywood with his two early hits, The French Connection and The Exorcist, it isn’t surprising to see that his next move was a direct remake of one of the great works of ‘50s European cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s superhumanly tense, strangely mythic The Wages of Fear. Friedkin’s remake, somewhat misleadingly titled Sorcerer, is the work of a deft showman, a talented craftsman and an aggressive idealizer of the tough-guy world he liked to see in movies. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Wages of Fear, which is inarguably a masterpiece. But the energy Friedkin brings to the story that both movies share, a very simple one about four roughnecks hired by a corrupt oil company to cart high-explosives on broken-down trucks across rugged South American terrain, is nevertheless something to behold.

Oddly, Friedkin’s vision for his version of The Wages of Fear seems to be a direct homage to another masterpiece, one almost as great, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), a relentlessly eerie film about a Spanish conquistador mission into both the jungles of South America and the depths of insanity. Sorcerer and Aguirre each stand out for their ability to create a truly threatening atmosphere out of a lush jungle location, and for asking the dubiously pertinent question of what greed and crazy determination might bring to men (in Sorcerer’s case, four expatriate criminals, including an intense Roy Scheider, who desperately needed a paycheck) who pit themselves against the Amazon. But though Friedkin is of the same filmmaking generation as Herzog (and arguably as adept a stylist) what he’s missing is the very thing that links Herzog to Clouzot: a sense of the mythic nature of the story he’s told. The Wages of Fear superficially resembles Aguirre far less than Sorcerer, but at heart Herzog, telling a totally different story, came closer to the greatness of The Wages of Fear than Friedkin could remaking it.

But this isn’t a review of Herzog. It’s only helpful to note the ways that Friedkin stole from him to update Clouzot. Friedkin’s frenzied style of direction is nowhere near as focused as that of Herzog, who, like Clouzot, had the talent for concentrating on character – specifically the slow drift of characters towards insanity – in the midst of action. Friedkin is almost solely an action director: his focus is on men’s faces, on sweat and dirt and blood and wounds. But through it all we learn little about his characters. Sorcerer is a movie about tough guys that exists on a level of pure action, pure surface. As that film, it’s impressive: all of its characters are so overwhelmingly creased and sweaty and visibly exhausted from the extreme output of energy it takes to get the job done that they wind up seeming like nothing more than the sum of their scrapes and bruises. Friedkin is like a boy penning hard-boiled fiction, his characters existing on no other level than the one on which men struggle and sweat and bleed and curse. There is no import to the journey of the men in Sorcerer, though it is exactly the same one in The Wages of Fear, a 200 mile trek through dangerous jungle passes on trucks loaded with the explosives needed to put out a gargantuan oil fire. The men in The Wages of Fear aren’t given the extensive back stories of the men in Sorcerer, yet Clouzot’s movie is about the slow burn of tension and stress in an impossible world, which goes a lot farther than a little exposition in making a character feel real.

Still, Friedkin is a whiz with his camera and a near-genius at creating atmosphere, perhaps as talented with pure energy as Clouzot was with tension. The centerpiece of the journey-by-truck in Sorcerer, an impressively staged crossing-of-a-rickety-old-bridge-over-a-rushing-river that reportedly took many months and millions of dollars to film, is unforgettable. The respective scene in The Wages of Fear, however, in which the trucks have to make one hairpin turn using a rotted-wood outcropping as their only support, is by far the more effective, so meticulous you can remember each plank of wood.

If it’s a side-by-side tally, The Wages of Fear on one side, Sorcerer on the other, then Clouzot wins easily, but not necessarily with more tallies. It’s just that the ones he does score are worth much more. Friedkin scores marks for indelible imagery and relentless action, for, if not the kind of tension he seems to have hoped for, then at least for the kind that comes a movie can and will pummel you relentlessly. The Wages of Fear, however, is timeless in a way that justifies that over-used word; it is truly mythic, and achieves its effectiveness by simply showing in great detail the struggle that it takes to accomplish a difficult thing in life. Sorcerer flies by, in contrast; it’s timeless only as something that should be dredged up for midnight movie screenings, a one-of-a-kind feat of action filmmaking by a talented copier. Comparing The Wages of Fear to its American remake is something like reading a textbook outline of the ever-present master-imitator paradigm that runs through 20th century film. Clouzot will be studied and remade forever; guys like Friedkin will be the ones to do it.

One Comment

  1. Peter Wagner

    January 23, 2015 at 4:39 am

    I saw both films for the second time the last week in the french-german co-channel arte. My first experience was in my childhood days, where my family owend only a black-and-white telly. I remembered some special scenes of both movies so I was very curious about them.
    Frankly said I was disappointed of the original french movie which came first. The disappointment grew even bigger after having watched the american re-make.
    I agree with Alex Peterson in two points: 1. the original name of the movie is maybe not the best title, 2. the characters are not of Shakespearian depth. But where is the extreme deep view into the characters of the french movie (“slow drift towards insanity”)? I cannot see that, because the characters of the french film allready acts quite insane right from the start! Nobody can tell me that the way Mario/Yves Montand interacts with the Miss Linda/Vera Clouzot was ok in the time the movie takes place and in the situation the movie takes place. Moreover the whole Las Piedras-setting in the french movie – the “miserable” town, the “miserable” men, the pub, the manner and moreover the clothing of the men – is disturbing as it is maximum artificial. No poor soldier of fortune hanging around in a bar next to an oil-field would look like them. Moreover the behaviour of the different characters (Mario, Jo, Linda, Luigi) is absurd, they mimic the strong men (or whatever woman) but neither look nor act like some.
    I cannot see by which reason the turn using a rotted-wood outcropping is “by far the more effective” scene than the elongated sequence crossing a flooded river over a suspension bridge in bad weather. The wooden outcropping does not look rotten – in order to illustrate this not-to-be-seen detail Jo has to penetrate a plank with his little knive to the shaft – pathetic. The bridge really looks instable. Two planks burst under the weight of the Dodge-lorry, none under the far more heavier White 666. Under the tires of both lorries the bridge cracks and crippels and fall into pieces – the only reason the wooden platform disassembles is that Mario ruins the construction by catching the stabilising steel cable with some outboard hook and goes on driving forward. Its ridiculous and the only thing you see is that Mario is a bad driver. In Sorcerer Scanlon/Roy Scheider is a good driver, either car or truck. In Sorcerer the election of the drivers is far more realistic and far more entertaining – it IS a movie-picture! – than in the french movie.
    There are many more reasons my disappointment about the french movie got bigger while watching the american re-make but: honestly I did not miss any deeper view into the protagonists souls. You saw in the (very good) beginning the past lifes of three of them – Scanlon, Manzon, Martinez. You get notice about there last actions in their past lifes as a criminal car driver, a criminal business man and a most criminal palestinian terrorist. The past life of surprisingly appearing Nilo/Francisco Rabal is not told – Martinez calls him a jewish assassin. But it is enough for the audience: there are criminals hiding for prosecution without means and money. How did they get especially there? It is not told and obviously there is the similar lack of interest in the french movie.
    Maybe Sorcerer is basically an action-movie and the characters show blood, sweat and curse. The french movie is what? Is it a piece of art, is it made for great debates after watching it, is it philosophic? In my opinion it is not – it is an action-movie, too and sadly not the best one.
    Regards Peter

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