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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dark of the Sun (1968) review


Rod Taylor (Captain Curry), Jim Brown (Sergeant Ruffo), Yvette Mimieux (Claire), Peter Carsten (Henlein), Kenneth More (Dr. Wreid), Calvin Lockhart (Ubi), Olivier Despax (Lieutenant Surrier), Andre Morell (Bussier), General Moses (Danny Daniels)

Directed by Jack Cardiff

"...You killed...kill like that?! Tragedy...blackness...we come from blackness...not go back. No, Captain...I not walk with you...walk a different way."

The Short Version: DARK OF THE SUN is a vastly underrated 'Men On A Mission' movie. Not only is it a near perfect example of a high octane action picture, but it contains a shockingly high degree of violence and an increasingly downbeat atmosphere. If Hell Is For Heroes, then the mercenaries of DARK OF SUN have a seat reserved for them. The brilliant script perfectly melds fact and fiction, action and exposition, and also some great one liners and dialog exchanges. Truly a spectacular piece of action entertainment exploding with testosterone, barrels of sweat and smoking gun barrels.

Captain Bruce Curry, a mercenary for hire, is entrusted with the job of rescuing the residents of a township right in the middle of an anti-colonial civil war being waged by the ruthless Simba hordes living some 300 miles within the African Congo. The real purpose of the mission, though, is to retrieve 50 million in diamonds the Congolesian President needs to finance his war against the Simba cultists. With only three days allotted them, Curry and his crew, which include a duplicitous ex-Nazi and an alcoholic doctor, encounter numerous obstacles and treachery along the way.

Award winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff helmed this stark and ultra-violent adventure movie that's packed with Tough Guy action, unsavory characters, cool dialog and an overabundance of brawn and sweat. Based on Wilbur Smith's novel of the same name, it's a fictitious action adventure built around the crisis in the Congo and anti-colonial conflicts of the 1960s.

The film explores the incursions of those events, but goes deeper by focusing even more attention on the heart of man, his potential for honor and integrity, believing in something bigger than himself and also less dignified characteristics such as jealousy, fear, avarice and revenge. It's a testament to the scriptwriters that they expertly balance the action with the drama to create this compellingly spectacular, shockingly violent late 60s production.

For the time, and even seeing it now, the scenes of brutality were terribly over the top. You just didn't see people being impaled in the face with flaming torches, implied man-on-man rape, the sight of corpses with their limbs chopped off, or gunning down of children, at least not in American movies, and especially major Hollywood ones. The picture was reportedly chastised at the time for its violence which would be overshadowed the following year by the judicious bloodshed of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969); a film whose massive amount of blood squibs and exaggerated violence are almost cartoonish by comparison.

There are no blood squibs here, but the brutality on display in DARK OF THE SUN is far uglier and surpasses scores of bandits being cut down in slow motion by a ragtag band of aging outlaws. The violence in Cardiff's movie is on a personable level. That uch of what the villains do in the film was taken from fact makes the proceedings all the more cruel.

If you scour the internet you'll find reviews and remembrances from folks who saw the film theatrically and make claims of missing scenes such as a nun being thrown to the crocodiles, a heart being cut out and even more graphic rape sequences. While a nun is brutalized and tossed off a balcony, there's nothing but a hard floor awaiting her at the bottom. The overly vicious final fist fight between Curry and Henlein appears to have been trimmed. Without revealing what happens, at one point, Curry is on top of him. Then moments later he's sitting in the river.

Just prior to hunting him down, Curry proclaims he's going to "cut Henlein's head off." If he does this, we don't see it. There are, however, a couple of spots elsewhere in the film that's obvious something has been removed, particularly during a scene where one of the major characters is killed.

One reviewer claimed the male-on-male rape scene was more explicit. In the film, we see the Simbas hold Surrier down, with one guy placing his boot at the back of his neck while the others prepare to gang rape him. The camera then cuts away to the mercenaries in the jungle.

The massacre towards the end of the movie is said to be missing some footage, too. Still, the picture is excessively barbaric as is, even without these alleged missing bits and pieces. If some of these scenes were actually in the theatrical version, somebody at the MPAA fell asleep at the wheel for a film that states "Suggested for Mature Audiences" in the trailer; the equivalent of what eventually became the PG rating.

Still from the film depicting a scene not in the finished product.

Stills for the film as well as the poster, suggest that a sex scene between Taylor and his TIME MACHINE (1960) co-star Yvette Mimieux (who plays Claire) was shot, but seemingly cut prior to release. Publicity photos often times feature shots that were never intended for the final cut, or were initially part of the end product, but removed for whatever reason. Likely this scene did exist at one time. Towards the end, we see Curry leaning over to kiss Claire in a long shot, so obviously some romantic entanglement has taken place; otherwise there'd be no need for him to kiss her.

Also, reports of lingering shots of Claire being roughed up by Henlein in a river exposing cleavage are said to be missing. In viewing this scene, her shirt is torn away and you see enough. It's difficult to ascertain just what would be missing here, if anything at all. If the presumably rough sex scene with Curry dominating Claire had been left in, accusations of misogyny no doubt would be levied at the picture, what with her later being slapped around and threatened with possible rape and murder by Henlein.

The violence in this film is enhanced by the ignobleness of many of the characters. This is evident in the first meeting of Curry with the Congolese President Ubi. After explaining the mission, Curry is then told what the true goal is; it's not the people that the President desires to be retrieved, but the some 50 million in diamonds he needs for political purposes. The infusion of politics and how the President of a civil war saturated country cares more for his re-election than those that put him in office is an apt parallel to our current political climate in America. The civilians are expendable when compared to the "priceless" diamonds. It also casts an even darker cloud over a film that will become increasingly downbeat as the 100 minutes soldier on to their conclusion.

Rod Taylor is magnetic and simply amazing as the mercenary leader, Captain Curry. Even though he's more or less out for himself, caring only for the money paid him to pull off this seemingly impossible three day caper, he's ultimately quite likable. By the end of the film, his character will have amassed a great deal of sympathy.

His longtime friend, Ruffo (played by Jim Brown) is Curry's moral center. For this job, Ruffo cares only for Africa, while Curry's interests lie in monetary gains. By the end of the movie, the enterprising mercenary finds his humanity, but not before embracing the "Dark Side" of the human soul during the finale.

Jim Brown is Ruffo, Curry's longtime mercenary partner. Both men have apparently been together for some time and both understand and respect one another despite their polar opposite personalities. Ruffo's reasoning and sane center ultimately proves bittersweet late in the film. During a chainsaw fight (yes, a chainsaw fight) between Curry and Henlein (played by Peter Carsten; some of his lines are curiously dubbed by Paul Frees!), Curry nearly severs the German's head after ordering the train to move. Ruffo saves the day, stopping his friend and re-affirming him that the cunning Henlein is needed for this 'Do Or Die' mission. Actually, things turn out badly for pretty much everybody in the movie because of decisions that seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

It's interesting to note that immediately after getting the details of the mission, very little, if anything goes as planned for the mercs. The group is supposedly granted free passage through UN controlled Congo territory, but apparently the message didn't go through. This results in human losses and nearly the loss of the heavily armed train they are traveling on. Upon arrival at their pick-up destination, it's more bad news; Curry discovers that Bussier (played by Andre Morell), the man in charge of the diamonds, miscalculated the teams arrival by three hours and the time locked vault cannot be opened before then. This of course puts everyone's lives in danger of being massacred by the approaching Simbas. But as Curry was told at the beginning, the diamonds first, people second.

The eventual outcome of the rescue mission pushes the film further into a depressing pit of despair and results in one of the pictures strongest sequences of depravity.

Thankfully, even if it's too late, morality finally sinks in during the closing scenes. This intriguing moral exchange comes courtesy of a loyal African soldier who is disgusted by Curry's sadistic, vengeance fueled murder of Henlein; a continuation of their earlier bare fist vs. chainsaw brawl.

Alternate shot of a scene during the finale

The soothingly melancholic score by Jacques Loussier fits the narrative perfectly, despite being bereft of any cues reveling in typical action movie machismo. DARK OF THE SUN is an unsung classic of the testosterone addled 'Guy Movie', yet its soundtrack takes a different route entirely. Certain cues soar, bringing many scenes to a tragic, possibly hopeful crescendo, but it never wallows in high pitched heroism. This only adds to the near perfect package that is Cardiff's little discussed action spectacle. Fans of kung fu movies will recognize at least one cue here from numerous HK lensed martial arts pictures.

The cinematography credited to Edward Scaife is also sprawling in its depiction of the sweltering expanse of the African jungles. The camera frequently captures the scope of the surroundings dwarfing the people at the center of them. This makes for some awe-inspiring moments that lends the gloomily oppressive atmosphere some moments of welcome grandeur.

About the only major negative on display here are a handful of badly rendered rear-projection shots. These involve close ups of some of the principal cast, or minor dialog exchanges on the train, or inside jeeps. Also, there's some rear-projection during the brutal brawl between Curry and Henlein as the two dangle from some jungle veins aligning a waterfall.

While the Oscar winning Cardiff is acknowledged for his exemplary DP resume including such films as BLACK NARCISSUS (his Oscar win;[1947]), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), WAR AND PEACE (1956) and THE DOGS OF WAR (1980), his directorial credits are equally impressive. These include THE LION (1962), THE LONG SHIPS (1964) and probably most famously, the low budget cult film, THE MUTATIONS aka THE FREAKMAKER (1974).

His DARK OF THE SUN (1968) is a sadly underrated movie that deserves better than an On Demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection. I suppose having it in full widescreen is thanks enough, but it's such a well mounted production with a cracking good script; it deserved and deserves a wider audience. It's easily one of the best of the 'Men On A Mission' movies and one of the most violent. The films poster artwork is gorgeous, comic book perfection, but hides the brutality found within the film itself. Enveloped in "darkness" for far too long, it's high time this unsung classic was allowed to shine and have its day in the SUN after all these years.

This DVD is representative of the Warner Archives Collection DVD.

***B/W stills: google images***


Wostry Ferenc said...

an absolutely amazing film

venoms5 said...

I agree 100%, Wostry!

Samuel Wilson said...

Saw it a couple of months ago on TCM and read a good article on the making of in Cinema Retro around the same time. Probably Rod Taylor's best work, and Carstens impresses as a scumbag no matter whose voice he speaks with. It seems to be taking place in the same reality as Africa Addio, but I'm not sure if that's a recommendation for most people or not.

venoms5 said...

Oh wow, I will have to find that issue, then. I would love to read it. I have a few Cinema Retro issues, but rarely get to the bookstore anymore. I have to go to Greensboro for that as we don't have one in my town any longer.

I guess the actor couldn't re-loop his lines for other engagements, or whatever the case may have been. During some of the dubbed in bits, I couldn't help but think of Boris and Natasha. Nice comparison with AFRICA, ADDIO, by the way, Sam.


I saw this when it was released and my jaw was on the theater floor during the entire film,yes I remember it being very violent and as far as trimmed scenes,after all these years I dont remember any.I did see the film on TCM some months ago,and it was great reliving it,guess I should purchase the dvd.

venoms5 said...

Most definitely pick up the DVD, ROCKER4EVER. This movie Rawks Hard and turns the action and machismo up to 11.

I would have LOVED to have seen this in a theater!

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