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***

No Blade of Grass (1970) review


Nigel Davenport (John Custance), Anthony May (Andrew Pirrie), Jean Wallace (Ann Custance), John Hamill (Roger Burnham), Lynne Frederick (Mary Custance), Christopher Neame (Locke)

Directed by Cornel Wilde

The Short Version: Rarely seen 'End of the World' movie goes for the throat in its depiction of a worldwide meltdown after an unknown virus destroys Earth's agricultural food sources such as grass and grains. A band of survivors attempt to make the trek to a farm further north and encounter all manner of savagery along the way, and indulge in some of their own. Wilde's movie even tosses in a marauding motorcycle gang. Occasionally bloody and frequently sadistic, NO BLADE OF GRASS is not a good time at all. It's a thought provoking, experimental, overly political, and vicious movie that goes off the rails as a serious societal warning when it embraces exploitational shenanigans.

A mysterious and devastating plague erupts around the world that wipes out grass and other grain sources resulting in worldwide famine and starvation. Anarchy, panic, violence and cannibalism are the outcome. A family led by John Custance attempt to make it to England's northern territory to his brothers farm. Along the way they pick up additional survivors and engage in assorted confrontations with thugs, the military and a biker gang on their dangerous and savage trek to start a new life.

It's difficult to say one enjoyed a movie like NO BLADE OF GRASS. It's an ugly, heavy handed "warning label" for a possible future generously littered with documentary footage of pollution and dead animals. The film begins on an extremely melancholic note with a five minute visual cacophony of bleak imagery backed by the somber vocals of Roger Whittaker singing the main title theme. The film ends much the same way, but with an even less sense of hope and an even greater sense of despair.

Cornel Wilde's taut, depressingly angry disaster movie is essentially a 97 minute exploitation picture decked out in 'message movie' attire. It's a string of vignettes, violent encounters for the pictures dwindling band of human survivors to endure till they reach their destination; the "holy grail" of a farm where a new life supposedly awaits them. Possibly the first such film of its kind to emerge at the dawn of the 70s, its failure to find an audience did not impede other 'End of the World' scenarios found in such works as THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (based on Michael Crichton's book) from 1971 and THE OMEGA MAN in 1973; the latter picture from Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend, a book already brought to the screen the first time in 1964 as the creeptastic Vincent Price vampire tale, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH.

NO BLADE OF GRASS itself is based upon a 1956 novel by British author John Christopher under the title of The Death of Grass. Incidentally, the books US edition bore the No Blade of Grass moniker, this title being the one chosen for the MGM financed production. Christopher's novel was possibly influenced by George R. Stewart's cataclysmic novel Earth Abides, a 1949 post apocalyptic tale about mankind's destruction by an airborne virus and its eventual rebirth.

The script, co-written by director Wilde, seems to follow the pattern laid down by actor Ray Milland's own directorial effort PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO from 1962. That film substituted a nuclear attack for this films grain and grass obliterating virus. Both films explore the need to survive and the lengths, or depths civilized society will go to protect themselves and their families.

The subject of a learned society succumbing to savagery was also explored in a classic and equally intense 1961 TWILIGHT ZONE episode written by Rod Serling entitled The Shelter from season three.

As per the more permissive decade, Wilde's movie is punctuated with brutish scenes of violence that, while not excessive, carries a sordid, disturbing tone. These moments are made even more unsettling during intermittent instances of juxtaposition such as a group of Londoners enjoying a hearty meal, oblivious to the emaciated, dying African child succumbing to starvation on a television monitor. Another such instance is a birthing sequence that intercuts a flashback to the protagonists then newborn daughter with one of the plague survivors giving birth to a dead baby on the road.

Wilde was seemingly fascinated with the dark recesses of man's psyche having explored civilized man's propensity for savagery in his works such as THE NAKED PREY (1966), BEACH RED (1967) and also in SHARK'S TREASURE in 1975. While those films concentrated on a group of individuals thrust into life-threatening ordeals (an African safari, a Japanese controlled island in WW2, shark infested waters off the coast of Honduras respectively), NO BLADE OF GRASS widens the playing field by placing the entire planet into a state of anarchy culminating in a "new" dystopian society where savagery, wanton murder and cannibalism (we never see anybody being eaten, but we hear about it) are the answers to survival.

If there was one film that was influenced by Wilde's downer, cinematic bomb, it would likely be Toshio Masuda's PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS (1974), Toho's own entry in the 'Armageddon' sweepstakes. It's a nasty little number that was, and still is banned in its own country and was cut off at the kneecaps for its US release under the title LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH. Toho's earlier, livelier, but still moderately disturbing GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1972) tackled similar ecological disaster themes in much the same way Wilde's film does with its imagery of toxic pollutants and a more upbeat mantra on saving the Earth.

Back in America, eco-disasters soon poured over into the 'Nature Amuck' movies reaching a pinnacle of sorts with the little seen PHASE IV (1974) and denigrating itself in AIP's moneymaking THE FOOD OF THE GODS in 1976. A cure for serious endeavors like NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) had been found by this point in the decade. That the film slipped in and out of circulation with little notice is as depressing as the film itself.

A bit ahead of its time, later pictures like DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) would appear to draw some influence from it. Similar disaster movies would crop up in later years such as the frightening THE DAY AFTER (1983) and even the later apocalyptic horror picture STAKE LAND (2010) share a grim kinship with Cornel Wilde's neglected curio.

There's some missteps, too, that lessen the impact and seriousness of the narrative. These lacking moments are taken up mostly during an overlong assault by a motorcycle gang wherein the horned helmet wearing bikers attack the heavily armed nomadic bunch like ducks in a shooting gallery. In a particularly questionable move, the bikers attack from the bottom of the hillside.

Still, even this sequence finishes quite well in quick cuts showing these formerly normal, non-violent folk overpowering the imposing bikers in close quarters combat.

Burnell Whibley's score is also a bit of a letdown. The pulsing, heartbeat-like cues do well to create tension, but the rock styled tracks do nothing but take away from the doom-laden atmosphere especially in some of the attack scenes, particularly during a rape sequence early on.

There's also a bizarre editing choice employed by the director with some color tinted shots that foreshadow things to come. Presumably an experimental touch, they're not necessary and, at least in my opinion, lessen the impact of those sequences to a degree when they occur.

The performances are good across the board, especially Nigel Davenport as the former military man who must apply his wartime knowledge to an all new battle for survival. Davenport's character wears an eye patch and even with this hindering accoutrement, manages to elicit the right amount of nuance in certain scenes where he is forced to slip into barbarity for the safety of his family. There is a rivalry of sorts between Custance and crack shot Andrew Pirrie, played to the hilt by Anthony May. There's a hint of a rift between them in relation to leadership of the group. It rears its ugly head on a few occasions and adds another layer of tension to an already incendiary plot.

Lynne Frederick debuts here as Mary Custance and does fine with what few moments she's allowed to speak. Probably her best scene is the stand-off between Custance, Pirrie and Mark when Pirrie claims "ownership" over her; to which her boyfriend, Mark, takes great issue. The scene doesn't end the way you think. Hammer fans will of course recognize the late Frederick from VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). She also reunited with Davenport in the aforementioned, surreal and recommended doom and gloom science fiction picture, PHASE IV (1974).

The horror tinted NO BLADE OF GRASS may have evaded its audience theatrically, it can at least be seen by 70s film enthusiasts and science fiction fans via the Warner's Archive Collection. It's an unusually violent movie, and devastatingly poignant in places, even if it sometimes clobbers its message over your head in between shootings, rapes and overall savagery.

This review is representative of the Warner Archives Collection DVD.

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