Features and Columns · Movies

No Way Back: How They Shot the Bridge Scene in ‘Sorcerer’

A perilous bridge traversal so nice they did it twice.
Sorcerer Bridge Scene
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 29th, 2020

Welcome to How’d They Do That?, a bi-monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains the making of the scene in William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ where two enormous trucks cross a rotting suspension bridge.

William Friedkin‘s nihilistic opus may share its name with “Sorcerer,” one of the two hulking transport trucks that propel the film’s nail-biting second half, but the film’s ultimate fate took after the second vehicle’s namesake: “Lazarus.” Despite its commercial and critical death in 1977, Sorcerer was later revived, in large part thanks to Friedkin’s efforts to ensure the film’s survival on home video. Today, many regard the film as a grueling, beautiful, and underappreciated triumph.

The film follows four criminals who have sought refuge in a remote village: Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a getaway driver marked for death; Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a disgraced investment banker; Kassem (Amidou), a politically-motivated terrorist, and Nilo (Francisco Rabal), an assassin.

One day, a nearby oil rig explodes, sending a turret of fire scorching into the sky. To stifle the flames, the oil company needs explosives. And the only dynamite available is rotting in a shed 218 miles away, sweating volatile nitroglycerine that could explode with the slightest jostle. The only way to transport the stuff through the hostile terrain is by truck. Incentivized by a financial reward that could pay their way home, the four men volunteer for the job.

Sorcerer Bridge

Well into their journey, the two trucks come to a crossroads. Despite taking different paths, fate ultimately dumps them both at the same place: the bank of a raging river. A dilapidated bridge lies ahead, stitched together with loosening rope and soggy, splintering wood. Wind gusts violently, spraying torrents of rain in every imaginable direction.

The task is clear but impossible: to cross this bridge, in these trucks, and to make it to the other side alive. The Lazaro arrives first and incrementally begins its agonizingly slow crawl. Nilo guides Scanlon as the bridge buckles and tilts, cracking under their weight. Each sway is a threat, but somehow they make it across. And before you can catch your breath, Sorcerer arrives to attempt the same treacherous negotiation. Which it does. Barely.

While studio executives may have found its title misleading, the effect of Sorcerer is, ultimately, an otherworldly one where lumbering metal tanks growl like tigers and purgatory takes on a decaying, desperate aspect. The bridge sequence is no different: it is a spellbinding Sisyphean centerpiece that dangles redemption in the face of assured catastrophe. It is one of the most astonishing sequences ever put to film; cinematic magic performed by an accomplished — if wantonly reckless — sorcerer.

How’d they do that?

Long story short:

While the core of the bridge was made of steel and hydraulics instead of decayed wood and rope, ultimately: they drove a real truck, across a real bridge, over a real river.

Long story long:

Friedkin regularly describes the suspension bridge scene in Sorcerer as the most arduous sequence of his career. Which, considering all of Friedkin’s shenanigans, is saying something. Despite the danger, according to Friedkin, there was no resistance from the crew or the financiers. “That was never an issue,” stresses Friedkin in an interview with The Dissolve. “I must say that while they were concerned, they had total faith in me. And I had a kind of sleepwalker’s certainty that I could pull it off.”

The trucks on-screen were two and a half-ton capacity GMC M211 military transport vehicles, first deployed during the Korean War. Per the Sorcerer press booklet, Freidkin hired a local Dominican artist to decorate the trucks like the haulers he’d seen while location-scouting in Ecuador.

Champion motorcyclist and repeat Steve McQueen collaborator Bud Ekins served as the film’s stunt coordinator — it is perhaps not unrelated that McQueen was Friedkin’s first choice to play Jackie Scanlon. Famously, the main cast did much of the driving themselves. “Every time you see one of the actors in the truck, they are driving,” emphasizes Friedkin in a 2018 interview with Empire. “The fear they show and the caution that they show is real…It’s only in the long-shot sequences that there’s a stuntman.”

Speaking with The New York Times in 1977, Scheider stressed that shooting Sorcerer “made Jaws look like a picnic.” He adds that what you see in the suspension bridge scene is “what really happened.” No optical effects. No rear projection. “Today it would be computer-generated, and it wouldn’t be life-threatening,” supposes Friedkin, correctly.