D. William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider
It was the Summer of 1977 and a movie came out that changed my life and the life of so may others. That movie was Star Wars. Lucas’ prequels have somewhat tarnished the legacy of the original trilogy but I will always love those movies for what they meant to me as a young child, getting to see all of them with my Dad who loved cinema as much as I do. God only knows what JJ Abrams has up his bloody sleeve for the recently announced sequel trilogy but I do I’ll be there to see them.
But I’m not here to talk about that venerable franchise. I’m here to bring to light a movie that came out about a month later, a movie that drowned under the massive tidal wave created by audiences flocking to the theater to see the beloved space opera time and time again. This film was ignored by audiences, dismissed by critics, and quickly faded into obscurity.
The film was a remake of the French classic Wages of Fear, itself based on a novel. Directed by William Friedkin, the thriller was set in the jungles of South America. It told the tale of 4 desperate men, exiles of a sort, hiding out and waiting for a chance to elevate their positions, to reclaim some aspect of their former lives. The men volunteer to transport old dynamite, precious but highly volatile cargo, over two hundred miles through treacherous terrain. The dynamite is necessary to extinguish an oil field fire but it can only arrive by truck and is highly unstable. It’s a high-risk proposition with a hefty reward. It’s a near suicide mission. It’s their last hope.
The film starred Roy Scheider who had previously worked with the director on The French Connection. He was fresh off the success of Jaws but he was miles away in character from his heroic Chief Brody. All of the players were on point. Each man is on the journey for a reason. Each desperate for reward. Each knows they may not survive. Each of them do not care because they have nothing else, no other choice. They’d rather die by fire than waste away in exile.
The film was brilliantly filmed. Friedkin made excellent use of his shooting locales. He conveyed the squalor of the village in which the men have taken refuge. He showed the danger in the jungle through which the men travel. There is a set piece on a bridge, a perilous trek as a truck creeps across old wooden planks. There is more tension in these ten minutes, I think, than in any other movie I’ve ever seen.
The film featured the first soundtrack by German electronic band Tangerine Dream. It launched their careers and they went on to create some of the most memorable film music of all time. The score fits the film perfectly. One would not work without the other.
The film was spectacular. But nobody knew it. It was gone as quickly and as quietly as it arrived. The dismal box office caused the studio and the director to part ways. But Friedkin always believed in the film. He never stopped believing.
The film popped up on cable from time to time and was finally released to the home video market in 1990 on VHS and Laserdisc. Eight years later, it would appear on DVD. It was a truly terrible product, copied over poorly from the laserdisc in the wrong aspect ration. There were not many options by which to see the film.
Friedkin eventually sued the studios over the rights to the films as they were making no positive steps to release it on the new popular Blu-ray format. The case was eventually dropped and Friedkin was given control over a fully restored theatrical and Blu-ray release. And finally, 37 years later, it has arrived in the best possible format. It is available to you. It is waiting.
If you’ve already seen the film, I’m preaching to the choir. If you haven’t, you don’t know what you’re missing.
But you should probably find out.