The William Friedkin Movie That Put 50 Crew Members in the Hospital


The Big Picture

  • Sorcerer
    , directed by William Friedkin, was a nightmare production with many crew members falling ill and contracting gangrene.
  • Despite the difficulties, Friedkin is proud of the film and believes it came closest to his original vision.
  • Sorcerer
    was released in 1977 but was overshadowed by the release of
    Star Wars
    , leading to bad reviews and box office failure.

Sometimes a director has so much ambition and such a lofty vision of what they want a film to look like, they bite off a bit more than they can chew. There are too many stories of film production hell to recall, but the 1977 movie by William Friedkin called Sorcerer is a nightmare that almost turned out to be deadly for his crew and, ultimately, himself. There are more notorious stories that are still mentioned in hushed tones around Hollywood about problematic productions, like the doomed cast, crew, and set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and then there are true abominations like the one Friedkin undertook that kind of flew under the radar for other reasons that we will get to later on. Within the first ten minutes of Sorcerer, Friedkin takes us to Veracruz, Mexico; Jerusalem, Israel; Paris, France; and New Jersey, United States. It was a massive undertaking that became a logistical black hole. For a great many members of his crew, it was a job they most likely wish they hadn’t taken.


Four unfortunate men from different parts of the globe agree to risk their lives transporting gallons of nitroglycerin across dangerous Latin American jungle.

Release Date
June 24, 1977

Roy Scheider , Bruno Cremer , Francisco Rabal , Ramon Bieri , Amidou

121 minutes

William Friedkin Had Every Reason To Think ‘Sorcerer’ Would Work

Friedkin had all the reason in the world to be confident he could pull off such a project. He was coming off two enormously successful and difficult shoots in The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973. He was closely linked with what was being called the “New Hollywood Movement” of the 1970s, and it seemed like a natural extension to take on the sweeping, globetrotting tale of four unfortunate men who are paid to transport a cache of deadly, unstable weapons. Their payload includes nitroglycerin and bundles of dynamite, and has to be delivered across unforgiving terrain. But before Friedkin could even get to start on the principal photography on Sorcerer, which is based on a 1950 French novel, Le Salaire de la peur, written by George Arnaud, (a French film version was also made), he had to get the project funded, which was no small feat either. According to Variety, Friedkin went with his hat in his hand to one of the most powerful people in the film industry at the time named Lew Wasserman. Wasserman didn’t think the film could be made because no big names were attached, and it was going to cost way too much. Well, he was right about the cost, and halfway right about the movie’s star. Friedkin had the biggest name in the business at the time, Steve McQueen, on tap to play the lead role of Scanlon/Dominguez, but the logistics of getting to all the different shooting sites proved too much for the Bullitt star, and he dropped out of the part. Roy Scheider stepped in and gave his usual solid performance, but he’s no McQueen — even coming off of one of the biggest movies of all time, Jaws in 1975.


William Friedkin’s Final Movie Is an Intense, Certified Fresh Masterpiece

The final film from William Friedkin is a captivating courtroom drama.

After some cajoling from Friedkin, Wasserman was able to convince Paramount Pictures to give the director a budget of $15 million to go make the movie. It was a hefty chunk of change for the time, and would end up being a rare mistake in Wasserman’s successful Hollywood career. Even with its fair share of thrilling scenes and fine dramatic performances of the leads (including a valiant turn by Scheider), Sorcerer ended up making just $12 million of that total back upon its release. And like all of Friedkin’s other works, the final product is crisp, thrilling, and sometimes haunting. You would have no clue that dozens of crew members got terribly ill during its production.

Most of William Friedkin’s Crew Contracted Gangrene During the Shoot

Friedkin wanted to make what would be the bulk of the movie in Ecuador. That was squashed almost immediately as the subtropical country was deemed far too dangerous for filming. So the location was moved to the humid, insect-infested jungles of the Dominican Republic, which, as it turns out, was just as dangerous, but for different reasons. During the exhausting shoot that included bouts with severe weather, approximately 50 members of Sorcerer‘s cast and crew developed gangrene and other illnesses and had to be hospitalized before eventually being sent home. I mean — gangrene, for God’s sake! We had to look up the definition of the horrible affliction to find out that it is defined as “the localized death and decomposition of body tissue resulting from either obstructed circulation or bacterial infection.” So it is safe to say that Steve McQueen dodged a bullet (no pun intended) by passing on the horrific project. Friedkin relayed the humbling experience to Variety, admitting that “It was the most difficult film I ever made. Fifty members of the crew suffered gangrene and other serious illnesses and had to be sent home. Various members of the cast and crew were busted for drug use, and the tension and frustration behind the camera was every bit as nerve-rattling as what we were filming.” It makes the problems on The Island of Dr. Moreau shoot sound like a vacation Bible camp, doesn’t it? Good grief!

William Friedkin Came Down With Another Disease While Shooting ‘Sorcerer’

A man climbing a rickety bridge during a thunderstorm with his truck behind him in 1977's Sorcerer
Image via Universal Pictures

Not wanting to miss out on the epidemic of potentially fatal diseases going around on the set of Sorcerer, Friedkin was stricken with his own debilitating malady. The iconic director said in the Variety piece, “Toward the end of the shoot, I contracted malaria. The picture went way over schedule and budget.” Despite all the problems and infectious diseases, Friedkin still believes Sorcerer to be one of his finest projects, saying, “But Sorcerer is the film of which I’m most proud, because it came closest to what I envisioned in my mind’s eye.” It’s clear that at some point, this became a labor of love for Friedkin, and everything else be damned, which sometimes happens with visionary directors.

‘Star Wars’ Overshadowed William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’

We have to give Friedkin credit, he was like the captain of the Titanic and was going to stay at the helm of the project even after it hit an iceberg and started sinking. He still maintains that Sorcerer is a good film (which it is) and that if not for George Lucas‘ cinema-altering phenomenon called Star Wars, it would be remembered differently than it is today. “It was released in 1977 to great fanfare, but a couple of weeks after Star Wars,” he said, “which changed the zeitgeist as no other film before. Sorcerer got bad reviews and was a box office flop. An existential action film about futility, firmly rooted in reality, was no match for a galaxy far, far away, where the heroes and villains were clearly defined.” So if not for the supermassive black hole that was Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi-Won, perhaps in another universe, Sorcerer would have been the film to remember from 1977, Alas, we only know for sure what happened in this one, and despite getting most of his crew desperately ill and contracting malaria himself, Friedkin is sure that Sorcerer has a place in movie lore.

Sorcerer is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.

Rent on Prime Video


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