Thursday, 6 March 2014

Dark of the Sun (1968)

Dark of the Sun was the first of what proved to be a rather small genre, the mercenary war adventure movie. It’s a small genre not because it lacks appeal but because such movies are expensive to do properly. And Dark of the Sun sets the bar very high.

Captain Curry (Rod Taylor) and Sergeant Ruffo (Jim Brown) are mercenaries employed by the beleaguered government of the Congo. Their mission is to take a train 300 miles through rebel-held jungle to rescue a party of civilians from a place called Port Reprieve. Or at least that’s the publicly stated aim of the mission. Their real task is to retrieve $50 million worth of diamonds held in the vaults of a Belgian mining company. The government needs the money to buy arms to fight the rebels.

They will need another experienced officer and they choose Captain Henlein (Peter Carsten). This proves to be an unfortunate choice. Henlein is an ex-Nazi. well, not exactly an ex-Nazi. He still proudly wears a swastika on his uniform. Both Curry and Ruffo dislike him intensely, but as Ruffo points out he’s the best officer available and for a mission like this he’s the man they need.

Henlein is to pick forty of the best Congolese government soldiers from the force he commands, which happens to be the best unit the Congolese government has. They will also need a doctor. Curry manages to persuade Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) to join the mission. He promises him a case of whisky and $100 a day. Wreid would accepted just for the whisky, but then there’s nothing Wreid wouldn’t agree to for a case of whisky.

The train is equipped with five .50 calibre machine guns but even with that armament and forty well-trained men it’s clearly going to be a rough ride. They don’t just have to worry about the rebels; they will also have to break through the lines of UN peace-keeping forces  (who are proving to be as useless as ever in keeping the peace). 

Getting to Port Reprieve is difficult enough but when they get there they find that their problems have only just begun.

Jack Cardiff was certainly the right man to direct this movie. Cardiff was one of the great cinematographers but he also made a number of interesting movies as a director. In this film he handles both roles (although he didn’t take the cinematography credit). He knew how to handle action scenes and he knew how to handle complex themes. And this movie has both.

As an action movie it delivers the goods. The combat scenes involving the train are stunning and there are more superb action set-pieces to come later in the movie. 

In 1968 the level of violence in this movie was considered to be quite shocking. The violence still shocks today, but not for the obvious reasons. Modern movies have a great deal more gore, but Jack Cardiff doesn’t need gore to shock the viewer. The shock value comes from the implications of what we’re seeing, the psychological motivations, and the casual acceptance of violence by the perpetrators. There’s a scene where Henlein commits a horrifying atrocity. The impact of the scene comes from his explanation for his action. In a strictly military sense it was probably necessary and had he not done it the safety of everyone including the innocent civilians they are supposed to be rescuing might have been put in jeopardy. But it is still an immoral act. That’s typical of the moral complexity of this movie.

Because this is more than just an action movie. It’s a movie that has something to say, and what makes it impressive in that respect is the way it avoids obviousness in doing so, and it avoids easy answers. The subject matter could easily have been used to make obvious political points and there’s little doubt that that is precisely the trap that a director making this movie today would fall into. But Cardiff, and screenwriters Ranald MacDougall and Adrian Spies, do not succumb to the temptation. If there is a political message it’s that political ideologies are not what matters. What matters is something deeper and more difficult. To describe it you’d have to use old-fashioned words like morality, decency and honour. There are such things as right and wrong, but they have nothing to do with ideology. A good man fighting for a bad reason may be considerably less dangerous than a bad man fighting for a good cause. And evil done in the name of a good cause is still evil.

The movie is more concerned with psychology than politics and it deals with the psychology of its characters in complex ways. Captain Curry is a straightforward mercenary. He fights for a pay cheque. Sergeant Ruffo is fighting for a different reason; he’s a Congolese and he believes he’s fighting to prevent his country from collapsing into savagery. This sounds like an obvious setup, with the idealistic Ruffo despising the avaricious Curry. But Ruffo doesn’t despise Curry. He likes him. He likes him a good deal, and he respects him. He knows that Curry is a good man. He might not be fighting for a good reason but he’s still a good man. There’s a tension between them as a result of their differing motivations but for both men friendship is far more important than a difference of beliefs.

After Henlein commits the atrocity referred to above Curry asks Ruffo why he doesn’t hate white people. Ruffo explains that just one generation earlier his tribe believed that eating the heart and brains of a slain enemy would give a man that enemy’s strength. Ruffo knows all about the darkness that lurks in the human soul and he knows it’s in his people and in all people. He does not have the right to condemn white people for the actions of a man like Henlein. 

The movie does not back away from the brutality of the conflict. Interestingly enough (and this is another example of the intelligence of the movie) we are told nothing about the rights or wrongs of either the government’s cause or that of the rebels. We are left to judge both by their actions rather than the cause they might be trumpeting. The government does not emerge with too much credit but given the savagery of the massacres we see the rebels committing we are left to reflect that maybe even the cynicism of President Ubi is preferable to this.

This a very dark movie. Heroism is not always enough. Even when combined with daring and professionalism it’s not always enough. There are times when things go badly wrong and people suffer and it happens no matter how hard you try.

If you’ve seen Jim Brown in other action movies of this era you’ve probably concluded that he’s fine for simple action movies but not much of an actor. This movie may change that opinion. This movie offers something Brown he very rarely got - the chance to play a complex nuanced character. The script gives him something to work with. He obviously relished the opportunity and gives the performance of his career.

Rod Taylor also gives what may be his career-best performance, and for the same reason. Curry is a complex man and he finds himself in a situation where he must confront the darkness in his own soul. This gives Taylor a part he can sink his teeth into, and does.

The other characters are less developed and less convincing but I suspect this is deliberate. It’s the friendship between Curry and Ruffo, and what both men learn from it, that matters. The other characters only matter insofar as they affect the two central characters. Having said that, both Kenneth More and Peter Carsten manage to take characters who are mere stereotypes and breathe life into them. Yvette Mimieux as the girl rescued by the mercenaries, having been the whole survivor of a massacre, has little to do but what she has to do she does well enough.

Dark of the Sun is essentially a journey into the heart of darkness and it handles this theme intelligently and without ever trying to bludgeon the viewer with its message.

The movie was shot in colour and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio. The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally excellent 16x9 enhanced transfer. 

Apart from its other virtues Dark of the Sun is also an extremely thrilling action adventure movie. Very highly recommended.


Ben said...

SOLD! Well, actually I sold just by the poster pretty much, but your review sealed the deal. Off to seek out a copy...

Samuel Wilson said...

Visually it's hard to choose between Cardiff's direction of this one and his cinematography on The Dogs of War. The man was the nearest thing we got to a visual poet of mercenary cinema.