Dark of the Sun(1968), directed by the legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, and starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown in lead roles, is a gritty, brutal and the most violent ‘Men on a Mission’ war action-adventure ever made.
I was surprised to see the great British cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, credited as the director of the 1968 film adaption of Wilbur Smith’s novel, Dark of the Sun. This brutal, raw and seriously violent, but undeniably potent and viscerally satisfying film is 180 degrees apart from the poetic visuals that Cardiff conjured up in glorious technicolor for such classy, romantic 1940s British classics as “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus”. Cardiff was a pioneer of technicolor photography, and in many ways, he single-handedly turned it into an art form, at a time when color was considered cheap and unsophisticated. In the 50s, Cardiff switched to direction and racked up an extremely eclectic, or rather eccentric, filmography, whose content and quality swung wildly between the Oscar-nominated, Sons and Lovers (1960) to the colorful medieval romp, The Long Ships(1963). In the 70s, he once again switched back to Cinematography, and ended up photographing films like Conan the Destroyer(1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II(1985). So i guess, there was always that oddball, eccentric element in Cardiff’s artistic DNA; and this could be one of the reasons why he chose to make this lurid, pulpy B movie classic. Every frame of Dark of the Sun drips with so much dynamism and so much testosterone, that I’m surprised that the film isn’t all that well known (as it out to be) among action film aficionados, though in recent time, interest in this film has certainly peaked. After its release, the film had disappeared from public view for a long time, and it was impossible to find a decent print of it. The versions I have seen weren’t the best, the colors were faded, but still, the filmmaking and the performances are so powerful that it still rivets you. This Africa-set film tells the story of some mercenaries hired by Congolese President, Ubi, to carry out a dual mission: rescue citizens as well as retrieve $50 million worth of diamonds from a town – rather ironically named Port Reprieve – under siege by Simba rebels. The band of mercenaries utilizes a steam engine to cross over the border into rebel-held territory. The film, which depicts the blood-soaked Simba revolt in the Congo in the 1960s, maintains a steamy, edgy feel throughout while exploring the morality and motivations of the mercenaries. Much like the train the mercenaries ride, the film starts out slow and builds up steam along the route. By the end, it’s a runaway that comes crashing to its end. The film portrays the civil war and the violence that it begets in all its stomach-churning and repulsive glory. Every character in the film is either greedy, violent or immoral, save for the character of Sgt Ruffo, played by Athlete turned actor, Jim Brown; Ruffo fights for ideology, not money, Congo is his country, and he wants to help put things right, but true to the bleak tone of the film, he gets brutally killed before the film is over. The film also features Peter Carsten as Capt. Henlein, an Ex-Nazi who proudly flaunts his swastika, as one of the mercenaries, with Rod Taylor playing Capt. Curry, the ruthless and greedy mercenary leader.
Dark of the Sun broadly falls into the Men-on-a-Mission war\adventure film category. But those of you who had enjoyed the spectacular and tastefully done ‘Men on a Mission’ wartime adventures of “Guns of Navarone”, “Where Eagles Dare” and even the gritty, violent ones of “The Dirty Dozen” should think twice before taking a bite of “Dark of the Sun”. The film is a modern-Conradian tale that truly reaches out into the heart of the darkness of war. Like “Apocalypse Now” that followed this film by a decade, the film shows how civilized white folk degenerate into violent savages when confronted with the horrors of a primitive society, as they travel deep into the jungle. But unlike that Coppola classic, which was operatic and surreal, this one literally rubs the audiences face in the blood and grime of war and the jungle. Just to give you a taste of what kind of film we’re dealing with here, take the pivotal scene in the movie that comes about an hour into this 100 minutes movie. Capt. Curry and his band of mercenaries have somehow managed to survive the odds and reach the mining town of Port Reprieve with their train intact. The rebel Simba army is closing in on the town, and is expected to be there within a matter of hours. But a complication arises when Bussier(André Morell), the mine company’s agent, locks the diamonds in a time-locked vault delaying the train’s departure by at least three hours. Curry, ever the ruthless mercenary, refuses to leave without the diamonds. That is his primary mission, rescuing the town-residents comes only second. As hours tick by and the rebels are getting closer and closer, Bussier begs Curry to return to the train, which is now filled to the brim with the white European residents of the town, including Bussier‘s wife. But Curry remains adamant, even when the rebels starts pounding the area with mortar shells. Finally, the vault opens, and they manage to board the train with the diamonds, even as the soldiers are engaged in a fierce firefight with the rebels. The train slowly departs under small arms fire. However, a mortar round destroys the coupling between the last two carriages. The last coach – carrying the diamonds and most of the Europeans – rolls back into the Simba-held town as the rest of the train steams away. We get a terrifying scene in which the coach that has rolled back into town is engulfed by Simba warriors, who maybe carrying guns and grenades, but are dressed and body painted like savage tribes. Bussier pulls out a gun and shoots and kills his wife, so that she wont fall into the hands of the Simbas.
If you thought that was extreme, wait for the next sequence: Curry and Ruffo set out to retrieve the diamonds during the night. Using a Simba disguise, Ruffo carries Curry’s seemingly lifeless body into the town’s hotel. There they witness harrowing scenes of murder, torture and pansexual rape; a woman is repeatedly hurled in the air on a sheet as a prelude to gang rape; a captive is dragged behind a motorcycle; another has his face burnt off by a torch; one man tries to rape a nun from the hospital, only for her to drag him over a balcony to their death; and Bussier‘s body is found sprawled amidst dozens of other massacred refugees. It’s a true apocalyptic moment that pushes the boundary of onscreen violence. The sadism and depravity on display is nauseating, but any war, civil or not, is this savage and dirty, and Cardiff does not pull any punches. The film critics of the time came down heavily on this sequence, and the film’s notoriety is mostly due to this extended sequence of sadistic violence. Cardiff defended the sequence at the time, saying that what he showed was just a tip of the iceberg, and what he came across in his research was even more horrible and nauseating. I can certainly believe that, especially since war brings out the worst in human beings, and here we are dealing primarily with a primitive, tribal society that’s still struggling to come into the modern world. This sequence ends with even more scenes of violence; the retreating Congolese army mounts a surprise attack on the Simba rebels, which allows Ruffo and Curry to escape with the diamonds. The resulting carnage leads to the annihilation of most of the rebels, including their sadistic leader, Col. Moses- blown to pieces by a grenade. You cannot get through this sequence without squirming and sweating in your pants, that’s if you could get through it at all. It’s at once realistic, exploitative, torture-porn and also nauseatingly powerful. Now you know why this is nothing like Gregory Peck leading a group of commandos to blow up giant guns or even Lee Marvin leading a dozen cutthroats to kill Nazis in a château. The film is a more of a prelude to what Sam Peckinpah would unleash with The Wild Bunch(1969) and Straw Dogs(1972), Stanley Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange(1971), and John Boorman with Deliverance(1972).
For a film that degenerates into such savage violence, Dark of the Sun begins rather conventionally: the film opens with the two mercenaries(and friends), Ruffo and Curry, swaggering past the UN peacekeepers at the Congolese airport, waving their presidential authorizations. Obviously, the peacekeepers do not like the presence of these mercenaries in the strife-torn country; they only seem to escalate the violence which the U.N. is trying its best to keep under control. Ruffo and Curry are escorted to the President’s residence by military car, and the first time we get an inkling of the violence brewing in the country is when we spot the bullet holes covering the car; that’s a nice, economical piece of detailing, which I liked very much. President Ubi turns out to be the typical head of state; he’s pompous, hypocritical, but he’s not a bad guy. He genuinely wants to modernize the country, but for that he need the support of Western capitalists; here represented by a Belgian Mining company- they are propping up his government and funding his campaign against the Simbas. Hence recovering those $50 million worth of diamonds is very important. Curry is given 3 days to accomplish his mission for which he and his fellow mercenaries will be well paid. A steam train is put into their service as well as a division of the Congolese military. Ruffo, ever the pragmatist, convinces Curry that they would require Capt. Henlein, an Ex-Nazi, for the mission, as only he can lead the Congolese soldiers. Curry agrees reluctantly. Since they require a doctor for the mission, Curry manipulates the alcoholic Doctor Wreid to go along with him. Though the official reason given for the mission is to rescue the besieged European citizens, everyone, including the treacherous Henlein, gets wind that they’re going after the diamonds, much to the discomfort of Curry. Anyway, the mercenaries assemble the train and the troops, and set forth on the mission.
When a film technician turns director, it’s expected that the technical aspects of the film is going to be top notch; additionally, his primary craft would shine through the film over and above everything else. This film is no exception: right from the scenes where the train is assembled, the film kicks into high gear, with Cardiff employing dizzying camera angles, dynamic camera movements, odd lighting schemes and montage style editing to create a unique visual experience. This dynamism and emergency is going to be carried forward for the rest of the film; starting with the superbly shot Train sequences, we can feel the hand of a master technician behind the scenes. President Ubi had promised Curry that he will clear the mission with the United Nations, but on the journey, Curry realizes that Ubi did not keep his promise, and his train is going to be attacked by a patrolling UN military plane. The subsequent attack on the Train by the plane is brilliantly choreographed and edited; we also see novice soldiers freezing under pressure, and not able to retaliate properly. Though they manage to shoot down the plane, the train is severely damaged in the attack, but Curry and company keep going. They get the first taste of what the rebel Simbas are capable of when they stop at a burned-out farmhouse to pick up a traumatized woman named Claire, who watched her husband being hacked to death by Simbas. Things are not going well within the group of mercenaries as well: the Nazi, Henlein, has been getting restless ever since he heard about the diamonds, and it’s increased further when Claire comes on board, and he’s told by Curry to keep away from her. Henlein resents Curry’s leadership, and his inbred sadistic nature shows signs of tipping into Psychosis when, first, he casually kills two native children for being possible Simba spies, and then, provokes Curry into a violent confrontation. A brutal fistfight ensues between Curry and Henlein, with the latter trying to cut the former into pieces with a chainsaw, and the former finishing the fight, with Henlein’s head close to being crushed by the train engine. Ruffo stops Curry from delivering the coup de grace, convincing him again that they need Henlein for the mission to go through successfully.
It’s after these incidents that they finally reach Port Reprieve, and we get the scenes of savagery that i mentioned above. After Ruffo and Curry successfully escape with the diamonds from the Simba camp, they run out of fuel for their vehicles; the train had completely damaged in the Simba attack, and now there using trucks and jeeps to transport the surviving residents. Curry, along with, Kataki, a diminutive Congolese soldier and aide, goes out in search for more fuel. Taking advantage of Curry’s absence, Heinlein, thinking that diamonds are in Ruffo’s possession, treacherously stabs Ruffo to death. Not finding the diamonds with Ruffo, Heinlein then confronts Claire, and almost drowns her, before she’s saved by the presence of Congolese soldiers. Heinlein mounts a makeshift raft that he had created with jungle trees and head for the border. Curry, while returning after successfully finding more fuel, is surprised to find the bag of diamonds in his jeep; Ruffo, unknowing to Curry, had dropped it in his jeep along with other supplies before Curry took off for the journey. Curry is overjoyed at his friend’s loyalty, but his joy turns to grief, and then, into blind rage when he returns to find Ruffo dead. Thirsting for revenge, Curry pursues Heinlein in his jeep through the rough jungle terrain and engages him in a vicious fight- dizzyingly staged with the actors struggling with each other while holding on to vines, getting thrown around on rocky cliffs, and almost getting drowned by the river water. The fight climaxes with Curry breaking Heinlein’s arms and then brutally stabbing him to death. Kataki, who has been witnessing all this, is shocked and repulsed by Curry’s murder of Heinlein. He berates Curry for becoming as savage as Heinlein or the Simbas, from whom they are trying to save the country. For a moment there, Curry is unapologetic and even angrily justify his actions, but as they continue on their journey with the convoy, Curry has a change of heart, as Ruffo’s words of wisdom keep ringing in his ears. He gives up his command, and turn himself in for a court-martial to answer for his actions.
This final resolution is something that I find most problematic about the film. It’s rather too conventional and neat for a film that had taken things to such an extreme in the previous sequences. I don’t know whether it was necessitated by pressure from producers or censorship, or this was how it was conceived from the beginning, but it’s a kind of cop out. It’s designed specifically to have a clichéd scene where we get a subordinate, here Kataki, who has been going along with his rather greedy and immoral superior all this time only because he’s ranked higher than him, and then at the end, salutes his superior purely out of respect. That belongs more in a conventional Hollywood war adventure, and not an envelope pushing, raw and gritty yarn like this. That apart, there’s very little to complain about this film; at least if you take the film for what it is: it’s intended to be a pulpy B movie, and it remains a pulpy B movie, but it’s executed with such technical artistry and craftsmanship that would put most A list production to shame. Cardiff is a veteran in photographing Africa, he had shot The African Queen(1951) for John Huston before; that 3-strip technicolor film was one of the most difficult productions in movie history. But this Africa-set film was shot in Jamaica, due to the easy availability of railroad and steam trains. Edward Scaife was Cardiff’s cinematographer on this film, and they put up some beautifully framed visuals on the screen. Cardiff also distinguishes himself as a terrific action director; apart from the action portion dealing with the train, the climax fight between Taylor and Carsten is phenomenal. It’s hard to fathom how he managed to get so many of those great shots in such a difficult terrain.
Apart from its technical brilliance, the film’s other highlight is its actors, especially Taylor and Brown. This has to be Rod Taylor’s best turn. His towering, muscular physicality is put to good use in this role. This is the most physically fit he has ever been, and his agility can be witnessed in the action scenes. He throws himself into action with abandon and vigor, whether its jumping from a second floor of a hotel on to a moving truck below, or jumping from a moving vehicle onto Peter Carsten and dueling with him in the jungles There’s a natural arrogance about him that suits this role perfectly. As for Jim Brown, who had by then switched from football to films permanently, he gives his most comfortable and convincing screen performance here. He has been typecast as the African-American martyr in film after film, laying down his life for his white comrades- he did it the previous year in The Dirty Dozen, he would do the same in Ice Station Zebra(1968) the same year. But here, his character is more thoughtful and well rounded, and his death in the film is very necessary. His Ruffo is what holds together the moral center of both this film and Taylor’s Curry. Without Ruffo to hold him down, Curry slips into full on savage mode, as witnessed by his brutal murder of Heinlein. Brown always had a Steve McQueen kind of cool forcefulness about him, and its used most effectively in this film. Brown and Taylor makes a great team; they’re physically well matched and their acting styles complement each other. Peter Carsten, who’s voice is dubbed by Paul Frees, is sufficiently maniacal and evil as the swastika flaunting Nazi. His performance has an edginess that complements the film well. The most influential aspect of the film turned out to be its music, composed by Jacques Loussier. Quentin Tarantino, who’s a big fan of this film, borrowed some of the tracks for his own ‘Men on a Mission’ war drama, Inglorious Basterds(2009). He even cast Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill in that film.