Back in the early 1970s, William Friedkin was on a hot streak.
He had just won an Oscar for best director for “The French Connection.” He followed that with “The Exorcist,” for which he received another Oscar nomination.
Both films were visceral and daring, and made history in their own ways.
So many expected big things for Friedkin’s next film, 1977’s “Sorcerer.” But it came and went quietly, barely getting noticed. And that was a travesty, according to many of its new fans.
The film has been resurrected over the past year or so – a newly remastered version has been popping up around the country in screenings at art houses and film festivals. “Sorcerer” is taking on a new life of its own, and newfound fans are screaming that the film absolutely should be seen on the big screen.
Wichitan Leif Jonker is one such fan.
“I’ve wanted to see this movie on the big screen since I was 14 years old,” he said.
So Jonker went to work. He had already successfully promoted screenings of the original “Godzilla (Gojira)” in May at the Warren Old Town (three of the four screenings were sold out), and had also promoted several successful horror film festivals in Wichita over the past several years.
With those successes behind him, he approached powers-that-be several times about showing “Sorcerer” in Wichita, but wasn’t met with enthusiasm. He then offered to pay for the film himself if no one showed up.
“I was ready to take that risk and could have been on the hook financially,” Jonker said.
But then some sponsors, including Hero Complex Games and Entertainment, came on board, and the screenings were set. “Sorcerer” will be shown at 7 and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at Warren Old Town. Tickets are $5.
The story follows four men from different parts of the globe who agree to risk their lives transporting gallons of nitroglycerin across dangerous South American jungle. Roy Scheider (“Jaws”) stars. It features a score by Tangerine Dream.
Jonker says “Sorcerer” is not like any movie made today.
“There are no superheroes,” Jonker said. “Nobody knows karate. It’s an action film for adults.”
He also points out that “Sorcerer” didn’t rely on computer-generated special effects. The film’s famous bridge scene, in which a truck almost topples over into a raging river during a treacherous rainstorm, was done without special effects magic. What we’re seeing really happened.
“Friedkin put his actors in danger,” Jonker said. “It could have been a ‘Twilight Zone’ tragedy.”
And nobody knows this more than Friedkin himself.
“I would never attempt to do anything like it again,” the 74-year-old director said in a recent phone conversation. “It was life-threatening. I had a kind of a ‘sleepwalker’s assurance’ that everything would go well, that we would be able to pull it off. It never occurred to me that I was going to fail.”
He said he’s a lot more realistic today about “what we did and how hard and dangerous it was. We crossed that rickety bridge in the rain.”
But that was true to Friedkin’s strong will. He fought to get “Sorcerer” made and faced many hurdles before and during production. It was his passion project.
“To me it’s the favorite of all my films that I’ve made,” Friedkin said. “Because it came the closest to achieving the vision I had of it. I can tell you that it’s precisely the film I set out to make.”
That makes it all the more surprising that the film didn’t do well. Some feel that the release of “Star Wars” – just a month before “Sorcerer” in 1977 – was the main cause for Friedkin’s film tanking.
“The timing was all wrong,” Jonker said. “Some great movies sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”
But “Sorcerer” is getting a second chance. Friedkin says he’s “delighted” by the film’s resurgence, and its new fans.
And, no doubt, their devotion: Jonker mentions that one person who has already purchased tickets online is traveling seven hours to be here for a special treat – Friedkin will participate in a rare, live Q&A session via Skype after the 7 p.m. Monday showing.
It’ll be a great way to celebrate Jonker’s birthday, also on Monday. This will be the ultimate treat for him.
“I’ve been waiting 30 years to see this on the big screen,” he said.