Director William Friedkin initially wanted Steve McQueen to star in the film. McQueen accepted the part, but on one condition--he wanted a co-starring role for his then wife, Ali MacGraw. Friedkin would not accept his conditions, and McQueen dropped out of the film. Friedkin later went on record, regretting not accepting McQueen's conditions. He tried to get Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson, but neither wanted to travel at that time. He stated that casting Roy Scheider in the lead was the worst casting decision he has ever made. Although he felt Scheider is a good actor who did a great job, he is only interesting in a film as a "second or third banana, he's not a star." Amidou. who played the Arab Kassem/"Martinez", was Friedkin's only real first choice--all the other actors were "fourth, fifth and even sixth choices."
Despite its look, the rope bridge was actually quite elaborate in its construction and contained numerous safety devices as well as hydraulic lifts in order for the special effects crew to manipulate it into motion. It cost $1 million to build. After it was completed the original river for the scene (in the Dominican Republic) went almost completely dry for the first time in its history, due to a drought. The bridge had to be torn down and a new location was found in Tuxtepec, Mexico. The bridge had to be rebuilt at the cost of another $1 million. However, the raging river that the bridge was built over began to dry up. The crew had to put a 24-hour guard around the bridge because the superstitious locals threatened to blow it up believing it was the bridge and the "intruders" that caused the river to become shallow. By the time filming began the water was only 18 inches deep and looked completely nonthreatening. The crew didn't have the time or the money to find another location, so William Friedkin decided to add an artificial current and rainstorm (using helicopters/wind machines and men on towers with giant hoses). The bridge itself was so rickety that, despite the safety precautions, the truck (often with an actor inside of it) slid off the side and into the shallow water five times during rehearsals and filming. The entire sequence took three months to shoot. Friedkin stated it was by far the most difficult sequence he ever filmed in his career.
Cinematographer Dick Bush found Friedkin so demanding and difficult to work with that he left the film halfway through. Friedkin used second unit cinematographer John M. Stephens for the remaining production. Both received screen credit.
A deleted scene shows Nilo (Francisco Rabal), driving the truck when the truck suddenly comes to a very steep and bumpy road down a large hill. Scanlon (Roy Scheider) quickly jumps to Nilo's side to help him steer as the truck descends the hill too fast while shaking violently. This scene was cut from the film but a clip of it still remains in the sequence towards the end where Scanlon has his emotional breakdown while driving and begins having flashbacks.
In the book "William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality" by Thomas D. Clagett, William Friedkin names this film as "my favorite of all the films that I have made. It's one of my only films I can watch because it came out almost exactly as I intended."
The film was originally to be titled "The Wages of Fear" from the original French film (The Wages of Fear (1953)) and novel. William Friedkin has stated that the strange title of this film refers to the evil wizard of fate.
William Friedkin originally just wanted one prologue for the main character Jackie Scanlon/"Dominguez". However, he and screenwriter Walon Green agreed that would make it far too obvious as to who would survive until the end. so four separate prologues were chosen instead. Originally they were supposed to be shown in flashback form, but that idea was scrapped in favor of four consecutive prologues during the opening.
The robbery of the church in the Elizabeth (NJ) prologue was based on a real-life church robbery that took place three blocks from where the church in the film was shot. The perpetrator of that crime was Gerard Murphy, an ex-con who became an actor. Friedkin gave him the part of the head of the robbery/Donnelly mob.
The film's location shooting was estimated to cost so much money that Universal Pictures partnered with Paramount Pictures to share expenses. William Friedkin and producer David Salven (who was his associate producer for The Exorcist (1973)) had frequent clashes regarding the expensive location shoots. Friedkin eventually fired Salvin and took the producer credit for himself.
The jungle scenes were originally supposed to haver been shot in Ecuador, but when that was deemed too expensive it was moved to the Dominican Republic, which at the time was basically a military dictatorship. The town used was called Alto Gracia. Soon after the film was finished, the town erupted in riots (reflecting a scene from the film) when the president nullified an election that he lost to a liberal candidate. The riots spread to neighboring villages, forcing the president to step down.
The oil fire was created by pumping up thousands of gallons of #2 diesel fuel as well as raw propane into the air ignited. Once the fire started it was so hot that no one could get within 50 feet of it.
The production sound man mixed in an undertone of a tiger roar for the sound of the "Sorcerer" truck and a cougar roar for the "Lazaro" truck. Bow draws across a viola were used for some of the sound groans of the rope bridge. The film's only academy award nomination was for best sound.
William Friedkin made sure he had final cut on the film's domestic release but did not specifically request it for foreign distribution. As a result, the opening prologues were either cut, greatly shortened or incorporated into the body of the picture as flashback for the film's foreign releases.
The film opened in America at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on June 24, 1977. Audiences were so anticipating it that the week of its release, the lines at Mann's went around the block. However, a film called Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) was also released at about the same time. It had initially been released in only a few theaters across the nation), but when it was put into wide release it became a phenomenon and, by the second week of the release of "Sorcerer," the crowds in front of Mann's Chinese Theater had dissipated to almost nothing. One San Francisco movie house, which had broken box-office records when it showed "Star Wars," found that its business dwindled to nothing when "Sorcerer" replaced it for a week. In the end, "Sorcerer" only recouped $9 million of its original $21-million budget, making it a financial disaster.
Due to the subtitles at the beginning of the film many theater patrons began complaining, believing that they had unknowingly paid to see a foreign film. In order to alleviate that, special posters were quickly printed up and posted in the theater lobby which stated the following. "YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. To dramatize the diverse backgrounds of the principal characters in "Sorcerer", two of the opening sequences were filmed in the appropriate foreign languages - with subtitles in English. Other than these opening scenes, "Sorcerer" is an English-language film."
William Friedkin talked to both Gene Hackman and Kris Kristofferson to find out if they were interested in starring. Hackman declined, saying the script was too violent. Kristofferson also declined, as he was not convinced he had the acting chops to carry a movie of this size and budget. He made Convoy (1978) instead, which he felt was safer.
Because of William Friedkin's explosive temper and the scene where he used helicopters to create the storm during the rope bridge sequence, this was the film that earned him the nickname 'Hurricane Billy.'
William Friedkin insisted that the DVD be released full-frame because he dislikes letterboxing. Because the film was originally presented in 1.66:1, he has said that the black bars on either side would look just as bad on a widescreen TV as those on the top and bottom would on a fullscreen one.
The rather odd watch worn by the demolitions man who demonstrates the danger of stale dynamite is a Bulova Accuquartz "Big Block" LED watch. Forerunners of contemporary digital timekeeping, the numerals were displayed as luminescent red figures.