Slam-bang, lightning-fast, crude, vital actioner…with something on its mind.
Seeing that the latest overindulgent, adolescent fantasy from arrested teen video store clerk Quentin Tarantino is currently in theaters, I was reminded of all those truly great movies he memorized and then later ripped off…like Dark of the Sun.
By Paul Mavis
A big hit for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1968 (and now available in a sparkling Blu-ray transfer from Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection), Dark of the Sun, a fierce, uncompromising rouser about mercenaries in the strife-torn Congo, stars he-men Rod Taylor, Jim Brown, and Peter Carsten, with Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More lending good support. Dark of the Sun, notorious in its day for its levels of violence and sadism, ranks right up there with the very best of late 60s big-scale actioners, like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, blending a gritty, unrelenting savagery with some intriguing political/sociological/psychological undercurrents. Rod Taylor and Jim Brown have their best roles here, and the speed of the film is relentless, with the action down and dirty.
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The Democratic Republic of Congo, 1965. A tribal-based uprising rages in the country, fed by the various Western and Eastern powers who smell political and economic opportunity, while the President, Mwani Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), looks for a way to hang on to his power. Port Reprieve, 300 miles away where most of the northern country’s diamonds are kept in a modern underground vault, is in danger of being overrun by the savage rebels. President Ubi has a plan to satisfy Dutch mining representative Delage (Guy Deghy), as well as the Western bankers who want to pull the plug on fading Ubi: send in mercenaries Curry (Rod Taylor) and Ruffo (Jim Brown) with a strike force of Congo regulars on a train bound for the diamonds…while rescuing any European civilians on the way.
This humanitarian slant should quiet the U.N. forces who don’t look too kindly on mercenary interference…but it’s not fooling Curry, who understands exactly why he’s going into the interior, and who wants $50,000 for the job―double Ubi’s offer. Given only three days to execute the mission, Curry is convinced by Ruffo that Captain Henlein (Peter Carsten), a former (and current) Nazi, is needed to directly command the regulars, so the team sets out on a mad dash to recover the diamonds. Unfortunately, any number of setbacks immediately occur, including inconvenient stops for civilians, like Claire (Yvette Mimieux), the widow of a Simba massacre; attacks by U.N. and rebel forces; and the blood fever that sets in when $50 million worth of diamonds are up for grabs…as well as when friends begin to question their reasons for fighting in the first place.
Certainly when I first saw Dark of the Sun in a severely-edited syndicated version on some late, late show back in the early ’70s, its heavy emphasis on balls-out violence and action made it a noteworthy addition to other big-screen he-man actioners I favored, such as The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. If I couldn’t actually see Dark of the Sun‘s violent acts themselves, I could at least imagine what I was missing―a favorite past time for pre-cable TV viewers my age, who wondered why so many films on TV had so many weird jump cuts and herky-jerky continuity.
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Having watched the unedited Dark of the Sun many times since then, its once-notorious violent imagery can still raise an eyebrow or two, even stacked up against the pornographic mayhem that routinely decorates action movies today (the guy getting his face smashed in with a burning torch is worthy of any vicarious sickness in movies today). Director Jack Cardiff amps up the queasiness-factor as the story relentlessly goes forward, from a classic chainsaw fight between Taylor and Carsten (Cardiff adds the nice touch of having the chain zip over Taylor’s belt, just missing his gut), to the sight of a guy with his leg hacked off, laying in the dirt, to an all-out orgy of violence and sadism at the film’s climax, where African rebels rape and torture anything that moves, including our sensitive, cowardly Congo regular, Surrier (Olivier Despax), and a nun who has her habit ripped off before she’s thrown over a railing (Cardiff keeps the actual penetration just out of frame; as Brown carries Taylor in, Cardiff shows rebels grinding away at arms and limbs).
It’s wild stuff when seen in the context of just how far studio feature films didn’t go in 1968, and one can see how a goofball amateur hack looking to make a rep, like Tarantino, would be attracted to the raw nastiness of it all. Director Jack Cardiff achieves a remarkably dirty, gritty production design (with Jamaica substituting for Africa), and he knows how to keep the story moving and moving and driving forward.
Taylor, coming up fast to the end of his A-picture starring roles, ditches the phony polish he often employed and lets his meaty Australian face sweat and flush here; it’s probably his best role (perhaps next to his run as Travis McGee in the vastly underrated Darker Than Amber). As well, Jim Brown, who could be stiff as a board in his other M-G-M outings (he’s a scream in Ice Station Zebra…and he’s not supposed to be), absolutely nails his best characterization in Dark of the Sun, showing a skilled understatement and a contemplative calm that contrasts effectively against Taylor’s outsized performance.
However exciting/disturbing are the movie’s violent elements, Dark of the Sun wants to achieve more than just setting up targets and knocking them down (such as carnival shooting gallery Where Eagles Dare)―and it largely succeeds. As the movie begins, viewers feel fairly comfortable going in that they’re watching a cynically-minded, tough-as-nails, action-oriented adventure…and probably nothing more. Taylor hits just the right note of caustic, sardonic world-weariness at Ubi’s dodge about a “humanitarian” mission. Taylor knows the score; this mission is about money and political power, nothing else, and he’s merely playing a role in the facade. We’ve seen that set-up and that anti-hero hero a hundred times before this.
But screenwriters Ranald MacDougall and Adrian Spies almost immediately introduce unexpected facets to both Taylor’s and Brown’s characters, establishing that deep schisms in behavior and motivation underlie their relatively unexamined relationship. Brown’s Ruffo, contrary to the bigoted journalist’s “big ape” comment, is actually the more educated, more socially committed member of the team. He’s a USC graduate (as an exchange student) who speaks four languages and who’s fighting in his homeland not for money but for the survival and importantly, the advancement of his people. He’s willing to put his life on the line to bring them out of their savage ways (“I came down out of the trees by invitation…and I’ll kill anyone who tries to put me back,”).
Taylor’s Cully, on the other hand, is in it purely for the money. He neither cares for the African people or the country, in any larger sense of duty to their advancement. Later, Cully shows a modicum of basic human decency at the atrocity that Carsten’s Henlein pulls, when the Nazi cruelly zaps two little children, suspecting (perhaps rightly), that they’re spies for the rebels. Interestingly, it’s Ruffo who is the voice of even-handedness when comforting a disgusted Cully. Ruffo admits that he came from circumstances no different than Henlein, in his own way―Henlein was raised a Nazi, and Ruffo’s tribe were cannibals―so he understands Henlein’s sickness of his soul. He admits he needs Henlein, and convinces the less-tolerant Cully to continue to have Henlein stay with them―a decision that proves disastrous in the end for both Ruffo and Cully. All of this goes against our initial genre expectations for these characters.
SPOILERS ALERT Going even further with this interesting subtext, the screenwriters have Ruffo eventually “turn” on Cully, after Ruffo is sickened by the sight of the rebel massacre/orgy. He wants to know where Cully stands…before Cully promptly tells him to shut up. Ruffo comes to distrust Cully, until Cully makes a gesture that proves Cully won’t abandon the rag-tag group after they run out of gas. However, Ruffo will pay for his even-handedness when he’s knifed in the back by Henlein.
Without the civilizing support of Ruffo (again, another irony of the script that the native Ruffo is more civilized and more socially committed than his supposed “white knight” Cully), Cully goes off the deep end, horrifically murdering Henlein instead of bringing him back for a court martial trial. Now just as savage as the rebels he fought, Cully is completely lost, both morally and spiritually, and only through penance can he return to the ideals of Ruffo’s (he turns himself over for court martial for Henlein’s murder).
What started out as a “men on a mission” actioner (I hate the overuse of that simplified moniker), has by the end turned quite intricate and even moving, as Dark of the Sun examines a timely question: can violence be employed for the advancement of people (here, Africa), or is it merely a tool for political and economic gain from those who care not for its aftereffects? Will violence ultimately be harnessed and indeed suppressed by good men fighting the “good fight,” if you will (Ruffo and Bloke Modisane’s Kataki)? Or will it be let loose and given free, savage rein, by men like Cully, who revert back to animals, falling from grace?
As a disgusted Kataki, the faithful African subordinate who can’t believe how far Cully has descended, says, Cully’s grotesque, cold-blooded murder of Henlein is a “tragedy. Blackness. We [the Africans] come from blackness. Not go back.” Now that’s a hell of a message, coming from a movie that equally revels in its own wanton viciousness. Some critics might suggest that contradiction in form and meaning negates Dark of the Sun’s impact. On the contrary: it perfectly expresses the complex attraction/revulsion of hyper-violence, only adding further layers to contemplate in this knotty, morally-convoluted actioner.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.