Monday, September 13, 2010

Film Review: DARK OF THE SUN (1968, Jack Cardiff)

Stars: 4.3 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Rod Taylor (THE BIRDS, ZABRISKIE POINT), Jim Brown (THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE RUNNING MAN), Yvette Mimieux (THE TIME MACHINE, THE BLACK HOLE), Kenneth More (THE LONGEST DAY, SINK THE BISMARCK!), Peter Carsten (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, TACTICAL GUERILLA), Calvin Lockhart (WILD AT HEART, PREDATOR 2). Music by Jacques Loussier (THE KILLING GAME, MONIQUE). Based on the novel by Wilbur Smith (THE LAST LION, SHOUT AT THE DEVIL). Screenplay by Adrian Spies (episodes of STAR TREK, THE UNTOUCHABLES, HAWAII 5-0) and Ranald MacDougall (MILDRED PIERCE, WE'RE NO ANGELS). Cinematography by Edward Scaife (SITTING TARGET, THE DIRTY DOZEN, NIGHT OF THE DEMON) - with help from Jack Cardiff.
Tag-lines: "Brutes! Savages! Heroes! ...Paid to fight in the fury of the Congo!"
Best one-liner: "The gun's Chinese, Ruffo, paid for by Russian rubles. The steel probably came from a West German factory built by French francs. Then it was flown out here on a South African airline probably subsidized by The United States. I don't think he got very far."

One of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived, Jack Cardiff is known for lensing everything from THE AFRICAN QUEEN to THE DOGS OF WAR to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II to CAT'S EYE. For me, his greatest work was with Powell and Pressburger, for whom he shot A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS, and portions of THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. From the 50's to the 70's, Cardiff turned his eye to directing (while still acting as a cinematographer on the side), and he churned out two-fisted actioners (like the vicious Richard Widmark/Sidney Poiter viking flick, THE LONG SHIPS), moody mysteries (like WEB OF EVIDENCE), and psychedelic freestyle insanities (like GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE). DARK OF THE SUN certainly falls into the 'two-fisted actioner' category, but I'd go as far as to say that, in hearkening back to his P&P days, it's Cardiff's version of 'THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP': a meditation on the exponential surge of brutality and complexity in modern warfare- and how it may be preferable to simply embrace extinction rather than adapt for survival in a nasty little world like ours.

Set in some approximation of the Congo in the tumultuous 60's, bloodthirsty pseudo-revolutionary 'Simbas' rape and pillage and butcher the populace as rich whites scramble to save their hides- but more importantly- their reserves of diamonds. An worn-down international strike force of mercenaries, led by the resilient Rod Taylor (who's kind of the 60's Bill Pullman) as 'Curry' and the affably severe Jim Brown as 'Ruffo', are brought in to rescue a group of refugees– er, I mean, rescue some rich douches' diamonds and maybe a few refugees if they can fit it into the schedule.

A few of the rich douches in question are stared down by Rod Taylor.

Taylor's in for the money, Brown's in it for love of country, and the motley team they assemble includes a raging ex-Nazi played by Peter Carsten and a dipsomaniacal doctor played by Kenneth More. Later, they're joined by shell-shocked survivor Yvette Mimieux, who acts as a pseudo-love interest and a voice of moral outrage in the midst of so many deadened mercenary hearts.

The film itself shifts between a white-knuckle train ride through hostile territory and a few fleeting moments of respite (which are generally spoiled by the trauma of an impending annihilation). It's sort of THE DIRTY DOZEN meets THE WAGES OF FEAR with enough sprinklings of Powell & Pressburger-style pathos to give the picture depth.

It's a difficult film to get one's hands on, but hopefully we can look forward to a DVD release thanks to increased attention from the likes of Martin Scorsese (who calls it a "guilty pleasure), Quentin Tarantino (who certainly drew more than a little inspiration from it for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), and William Lustig (who recently featured it in his 'William Lustig Presents' series at the Anthology Film Archives). It's truly one of the best films of its kind, and without telling you too much, here are six reasons why:

#1. Jacques Loussier's tremendous soundtrack. One could call it 'rip-off Morricone,' but I would only mean such a statement as the highest of praise. It's dissonant, razor-sharp piano; soaring, tragic strings; and explosive cymbals all wrapped up in a Euro-package that's as quietly mournful as it is cataclysmic. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself.

#2. A young Calvin Lockhart in an early role as 'Ubi,' one of the politicos who hires our soldiers of fortune.

Lynch fans will recall his role as 'Reggie' in WILD AT HEART, one of the trio of killers which included David Patrick Kelly and Grace Zabriskie, or his role as 'The Electrician' in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. Others, who will likely remain anonymous, will recall his absurdly brilliant turn as 'King Willie' in PREDATOR 2. Others still may remember his 'ecclesiastical' performance in the Ossie Davis-helmed blaxploitation film, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM. Regardless, Lockhart's role here is not a flashy one, but, as always, he does what needs to be done with genuine intensity.

#3. Rod Taylor and Jim Brown doing most of their own stunts. Brown, as an ex-NFLer, makes sense. But possibly in an attempt to out-macho Brown, Taylor was leaping and pratfalling and tumbling all over the place as well (and spraining his knee four times). According to co-star Kenneth More's memoirs: "Rod Taylor had been an amateur boxing champion before he became an actor, and he and Jim Brown threatened to settle disputes with their fists. Taylor fancied his chance of knocking out Brown...[who was] 6'4'' and built like a solid brick privy. They appeared to hate each other. Maybe they were only acting..."

Brown and Taylor tolerate one another.

Well...I gotta say that I don't think they were 'acting,' because the main thrust of the film is about the strength of their friendship.

#4. Rod Taylor schooling the Nazi, Part 1. As it happens, a Nazi joins the squad- a real nasty piece of work named Henlein. Being mercenaries, they're forced to suffer his presence, but Taylor lets him know up front what he thinks about his swastika:

"Get rid of that. It makes me nervous... I forget who I'm supposed to be mad at."

Later, when Henlein executes some children whom he suspects are ferrying information to the enemy,

Taylor can hardly his disgust, and wrathfully growls:

"Put the swastika back on... You've earned it."

#5. Rod Taylor schooling the Nazi, Part 2. Increasing tensions lead to a knock-down, drag-out brawl between the two, which involves the ferocious chainsaw vs. bare-knuckle match-up which graces the poster,

and a sweaty, vein-bulging, eye-popping throttling which pits 'skull' against 'train.'

I won't tell you how it ends, but there's definitely a 'Rod Taylor vs. Nazi, Part 3'- and suffice it to say that it is as brutal as all of the the previous skirmishes, combined.

#6. Kenneth More as Doctor Wreid. Sure, he's signs on to the mission for 12 bottles of scotch, but it's still sort of amazing to see him mourn a lost case of booze like it was a living being.

Later, in a rare moment of leisure, Henlein turns him on to an old (German?) drinking game which involves getting trashed, spinning 'round and 'round, and then attempting to shoot at targets with a degree of accuracy that is, well, questionable at best.

But this is just a lead-up to a drunken C-section, which still doesn't even quite make the short list of 'most jaw-dropping moments in DARK OF THE SUN.' (Despite the parade of lunacies, however, Wreid remains a solid character with a well-developed arc and a satisfying payoff.)

In the end, it's as gripping as a dive-bombing, as merciless as a bayonet to the guts, and as kinetic as a war movie can be. No winks, no nods- just the action and the waiting. The bloodshed and the friendship. The monsters inside the humans, and the humans inside the monsters. Over four stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

This movie sounds awesome, how do I get it?

Sean Gill said...

Your best bet is probably repertory screenings- I've occasionally been able to find it streaming or for download online, but the digital versions I've looked at appear to be cut by 3-4 minutes (though it was one of these versions that I used for the screencaps).

Kevin said...

Great review! I just watched this film last night. My only complaint is that it seemed to end a bit too abruptly. But what amazing performances and cinematography! I was also a little surprised by how violent the film is but it was totally necessary for the story.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by! The ending is a tad abrupt, but I didn't find it to be detrimental. On the whole, though, it's quite a gem that's certainly worthy of some mainstream critical re-evaluation.