For Star Wars Day, watch the forgotten masterpiece it helped kill

Roy Scheider gets dirty in William Friedkin's 1977 thriller "Sorcerer," newly out on Blu-ray. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Roy Scheider gets dirty in William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller “Sorcerer,” newly out on Blu-ray.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Today is Star Wars Day, which lands on the fourth of May, so people can say “May the fourth be with you!” rather than on the 25th of May, when it was actually released. We won’t begrudge its countless followers their frothing passion for the film. The push-back against its undying mega-popularity is almost as wearying as those who live as though there were no other cinematic achievements. We were “Stars Wars” kids once too, and we still enjoy it beyond mere nostalgia, even if the sequels (if not prequels) are tighter, more ambitious and more recognizably human (or “space-human”). But if you’d like, at least try to expand your “Star Wars” knowledge. Last year, we kicked in the loose holiday by talking about a pretty obscure piece of “Star Wars” trivia buried as an Easter Egg on the door to Princess Leia’s cell — one that points to George Lucas’ early jones for experimental cinema. (Not that he no longer digs the avant-garde — which he does — but that his early work, up to and including his debut feature “THX-1138,” was far more out-there.)

You may also ring in the day by getting your mitts on the brand new Blu-ray of a film that “Star Wars” is often accused of — somewhat unfairly — killing. That is William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer.” It had the misfortune of not only opening just under a month after “Star Wars,” but of being, in many ways, the anti-”Star Wars.” Where Lucas’ science-fiction fantasy was a fun (if certainly not un-grim) adventure where [spoiler, we guess] the good guys won (for the moment), Friedkin’s film is arguably the bleakest film to come out of the already very downer auteur-driven Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. “Sorcerer” had no heroes; it didn’t even have anti-heroes. It was about low-level criminals (including Roy Scheider, hot off of “Jaws”), who’ve failed so spectacularly in their grimy careers that they’ve been driven to one of the armpits of the world. Hoping to escape a purgatory of shared cohabitation, sweat stains and warm beer, they agree to a suicide mission: drive highly-combustible nitroglycerin across 200 miles of jungle terrain. (It was a loose remake of the 1953 French thriller “The Wages of Fear,” one of the goosebumpiest films ever made.) Following up two smashes — “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” — Friedkin doubled-, quadrupled-down on the trends towards grim realism that was in vogue at the time — but did so when people had finally grown sick of them, desiring the popcorn fluff that persists, at least in part, today. With a budget almost twice that of “Star Wars,” it tanked, critically and commercially, and was credited, along with Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” with slaying director-driven movies in America. (This isn’t 100% accurate, but, you know, print the legend.) Predictably, it’s an excellent film, one we considered at length here last week. And its influence can be, finally, at least by osmosis, felt today. Modern blockbusters, from superhero movies to YA dystopia, are a little more “Sorcerer” than “Star Wars.” Batman isn’t a bright-colored do-gooder, but a deeply troubled vigilante who sometimes causes more terror than he stops. In this climate, not even a new “Godzilla” entry can be a campy time-killer, but a brooding, realistic look at what life would be like if we were all attacked by giant monsters. (Then again, most Marvel films keep things relatively light, even when they’re having outside forces laying waste to Manhattan.) We won’t besmirch anyone the desire to celebrate Chewie et al. (although it’s hard to think of a film less in need of its own “day”). But if you’re in a rotten mood, the kind that can only be saved by some rotgut whiskey, perhaps you should reach for “Sorcerer.” It doesn’t have to be today. In fact, perhaps we can make one day in the year “Sorcerer Day.” Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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