Warner Archives has released Jack Cardiff’s 1968 testosterone fueled Dark of the Sun on Blu Ray. It’s a weird, politically questionable ‘mission’ action/war movie about mercenaries on assignment to retrieve diamonds from a civil war-torn African country.
The Production: 3/5
Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun opens with mercenaries Curry (Rod Taylor) and Ruffo (Jim Brown) landing at a Congolese airport. They have been summoned to the region by President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart) to go by steam train and liberate an isolated town deep in rebel territory. They have three days to complete the mission – oh, and by the way, don’t forget the $50 million in diamonds!
Curry is allowed to put together his own team, of which only four characters are given any sort of character, and even they aren’t given much more than one defining characteristic – the above mentioned idealistic Ruffo, alcoholic Dr. Wreid (Kenneth More), cowardly Surrier (Olivier Despax), and to top them off, a Nazi Captain, Henlein (Peter Carsten). It’s kind of like a deranged collection of Howard Hawks professionals. There’s even an exchange between Taylor and Brown in the movie that is practically lifted from Rio Bravo and later when Hawks is stealing from himself in El Dorado.
Along the way they pick up Claire (Yvette Mimieux) whose husband has been murdered and is fleeing the Simba rebels on foot. The Taylor Mimieux clench on the film poster is nowhere to be found in the actual movie.
With rebels chasing them, the train is attacked by United Nations peacekeeper planes. This is where Surrier’s cowardice is revealed and boy does he pay later when captured by the rebels! Once they get to the town, Curry finds that the diamonds are stored in a time-locked vault and has to wait three hours to retrieve them – just enough time for the rebels to catch up!
Dark of the Sun is based on a novel by Wilbur Smith. The screenplay adapted by Adrian Spies and Quentin Werty throws in tons of movie clichés but somehow the final product doesn’t feel like something one has seen several times before. Cardiff keeps it zipping along. Spies was primarily a television writer with no significant big screen credits to his name. Quentin Werty though is a pseudonym for Ranald MacDougall. MacDougall was a prolific writer with credits as diverse as Raoul Walsh’s underrated Objective, Burma!, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce and The Breaking Point (arguably the best Hemingway film adaptation), Roy Ward Baker’s I’ll Never Forget You, The Naked Jungle (soldier ants tormenting Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston), Secret of the Incas (again with Chuck as a Indiana Jones prototype), We’re No Angels, Cleopatra, and finishing up with That Man Bolt; from Errol Flynn to Joan Crawford to Tyrone Power to Fred Williamson. And he was married to Nannette Fabray.
Josh Olson on the commentary speculates why MacDougall didn’t use his real name on the film’s credit; he thinks it was due to serious content/themes being removed from the final product. Perhaps. Looking over MacDougall’s credits one has to admire the diversity, but other than a couple of pictures like Objective, Burma! and The Breaking Point, the filmography isn’t exactly littered with ‘serious’ movies. And that’s not a criticism of a fine screenwriting career. Olson dismisses Smith’s novel as boy’s literature, though he confesses to not having read it. I haven’t read it either but am motivated to now as Smith is a South African who has written a large collection of historical novels set in Africa and is still at it in his late 80s. Dark of the Sun is still in print. I’m guessing that the novel has serious themes and perhaps MacDougall’s original screenplay incorporated them, but was removed during either production or editing?
To me, this is where the movie gets weird and has made Dark of the Sun so difficult for me to review. I’ve watched it multiple times to try to come to terms with the film’s politics and I’m still not sure I have it right.
If taken as strictly as an action movie Dark of the Sun is very satisfying. What’s not to love about an action movie with Rod Taylor and Jim Brown as mercenaries where Taylor kicks a chain saw wielding Nazi’s ass? And that’s just a prelude to the climax! What isn’t so satisfying is that it ostensibly takes place in the real world in a real place with real political/social issues. Imagine the American civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s becoming fodder for an action picture?
When I watch a Tarzan or early James Bond movie, I never think of it taking place in the real world. These movies take place in movieland. One of the reasons I’m not a fan of the newer Bonds is that they purport to take place in the real world while employing cartoon like action sequences. It would be as if the Road Runner cartoons started asking us to take the plight of the Coyote seriously. Dark of the Sun takes place in civil war-ravaged Africa in the 1960s – a very real place with very real human suffering.
It’s a bit hard to pinpoint the political point of view (I have to confess I have a similar problem with Lawrence of Arabia). The main thrust of movie is the Curry’s discovering or recovering his humanity through Ruffo’s idealism. This is where it gets confusing.
Ruffo is Congolese and is fighting against the rebels. He is the moral center of the film. Unlike Curry, he has a reason to be there. To him the colonialists represent modernity – an escape from primitive tribalism. The rebels are portrayed as lawless marauding usurpers trying to undo the order imposed by the colonialists. This is clearly depicted in the film. What the film doesn’t depict is the abuse and suffering of the natives at the hands of the colonialists, which was very real. Ruffo is excluded from Curry’s meeting with Ubi and Delage because it is revealed that the diamonds are more important than human life – colonialist or native. What would become of Ruffo’s idealism if he knew this?
There is obviously a reason for the rebellion. Are these the only two choices for the people of the Congo? I feel a bit guilty watching a movie that uses real, serious issues as an excuse for such over the top melodramatics. The almost gleeful depiction of the rebel violence is gratuitous and racist.
The scene of Curry and Ruffo returning to the town to retrieve the diamonds is a vision of hell. It’s an ugly vision of humanity. It’s hard to believe that this was directed by the man who photographed A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. The chaos and destruction depicted is disturbing. Curry’s moral awakening at the end comes at too high a price for an action movie. And if that is the point of the film it is awfully subtle.
Martin Scorsese described Dark of the Sun as a guilty pleasure in a Film Comment article in the late 70s, “it’s a truly sadistic movie, but it should be seen. I’d guess that because of its utter racism, a lot of people would have found it embarrassing, so they just ignored it. The sense of the film is overwhelmingly violent; there’s no consideration for anything else. The answer to everything is “kill.”
One last thing, Peter Carsten’s voice as Henlein is looped throughout the movie. What’s wacky is that it seems that different voice actors are used in different scenes? One clear thing is that for a good chunk of the movie the character is voiced by Paul Frees using his German accent. I thought of Ludwig Von Drake. When Henlein attacks Claire and calls her a bitch, it sounds like Von Drake yelling at Daisy Duck on a bad day. If only The Beagle Boys were present.
3D Rating: NA
As is par for most Warner Archive releases, the transfer of Dark of the Sun is very good – much better than I remember the DVD looking. Being directed by one of cinema’s great cinematographers, Jack Cardiff, it of course looks spectacular. It was shot by his old cameraman, Edward Scaife who shot a number of impressive titles including several of the later Tarzan adventures, Curse of the Demon, All Night Long, Young Cassidy, Khartoum, The Dirty Dozen, Play Dirty, and The Kremlin Letter. Scaife seemed to have cornered the market on 60s gritty male action fantasies. Though the movie takes place in Africa, it was in fact shot in Jamaica and there are some incredible images of natural beauty along with the nightmarish expressionistically shot diamond retrieval sequence.
The audio is DTS-HD Master 2.0 and sounds great. The score is by recently deceased Jacques Loussier and definitely has a post Morricone vibe about it.
Special Features: 3/5
As usual for Warner Archives it is light on extras but does include a commentary by screenwriters Josh Olson and Larry Karazewski along with blogger Brian Saur and producer Elric D. Kane. It’s a hit-and-miss commentary with Olson and Karazewski dominating and Saur and Kane mainly agreeing with what they say. Olson and Karazewski are amusing when talking about the outcome of a Taylor Brown fist fight that supposedly occurred at the Playboy Mansion. I know Rod Taylor was supposed to be tough, but Jim Brown is a lot bigger – I can’t make up my mind. Olson is also funny when talking about watching movies, this one in particular, with his mother-in-law. I would never show my mother-in-law Dark of the Sun, though she is a fan of train movies unless I was hoping to hop on an express train to divorce court. Olson also insists the film contains substantial gay subtext, but I’m not buying. All of them mention Quentin Tarantino’s fondness of Dark of the Sun. It’s influence on his work is apparent. Being a Tarantino detractor, I can’t be objective when discussing his work but, I do find it interesting that while he is a fan of this movie, he attacks the work of John Ford as racist.
There are subtitles as well.
Action fans will be delighted by this release. I’m ambivalent about the movie; If the intent was to push the limits of violence and nihilism of the action picture, I would think the production team was talented enough to do this without resorting to exploiting real conflict and suffering. I will order a copy of the novel to see if the film reflects the novel. With a little script tinkering this could have been a totally satisfying, macho action movie, without a bad aftertaste. It’s too bad because it is so well made and acted, much better than most genre films of the era.