Dark of the Sun (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Produced by George Englund; directed by Jack Cardiff; written by Ranald MacDougall (as “Quentin Werty”) and Adrian Spies, from the novel The Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith; cinematography by Edward Scaife; edited by Ernest Walter; art direction by Elliot Scott; music by Jacques Loussier; starring Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Jim Brown, Kenneth More, Peter Carsten, André Morell, Olivier Despax, and Calvin Lockhart. Blu-ray, color, 100 min.,1968. A
Warner Archive release.

Steal from the best. And so Quentin Tarantino did, filching the star and score of Dark of the Sun for a few minutes of Inglourious Basterds (2009), his homage-laden entry in what he calls the “bunch of guys on a mission movie.” Bunches of guys have been going on missions in movies since the movies began but his frame of reference is mostly built around cynical, hard-boiled World War II adventures such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), Play Dirty (1969), and the first film to sort of use his title, The Inglorious Bastards (1978). Political correctness be damned, the films critique soldiering while reveling in post-Production Code violence, sacrificing many cast members and traditional “good taste” along the way.

Dark of the Sun fits into the “mercenary” subgenre of the mission flick, which also includes The Wild Geese (1978), with Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and Hardy Kruger in combat fatigues, and Christopher Walken in the film version of The Dogs of War (1981). As an aficionado of the genre, I give the Frederick Forsyth adaptation a slight edge in quality, if only because it had the hindsight to sharpen some of Dark of the Sun’s rough edges. It also benefited from experience: Sun’s director, the legendary director of photography Jack Cardiff, had returned to cinematography and shot The Dogs of War for John Irvin.

The grisly aftermath of the train derailment. Martin Scorsese called the film a “guilty pleasure.”

As a teen, the books of Forsyth, Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean (whose Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare were made into key “mission movies”) and Wilbur Smith were my go-to reading material. I somehow missed Smith’s The Dark of the Sun (1965), but reading it for the first time recently I felt like I was fourteen again, lapping up page after page of crisply described sadism, civilly written (abundant cruelty and rape, no four-letter words). The film follows its basic narrative, with significant alterations. With the Simba rebellion in the Congo in full swing, two mercenaries, Captain Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor), an American, and the U.S.-bred, half-Congolese Sergeant Ruffo (Jim Brown) are whisked from the airport in the hot zone to meet the president, Ubi (Calvin Lockhart). The calculating Ubi reveals that the Western bankers who will stop pulling his strings in three days’ time will be satiated by the $50 million in diamonds held in the country’s underground vault…some three hundred miles away, in Port Reprieve, where the Simbas are fast approaching. Curry accepts $50,000 for the mission: commandeering a government-supplied steam train to retrieve the diamonds and return to make the deadline. That Port Reprieve’s terrified citizenry will also be rescued is tacitly understood to be incidental.

In briskly written scenes we meet the rest of Curry’s crew: the German Henlein (Peter Carsten), an unrepentant Nazi, who barks orders at the Congolese troops he despises; the alcoholic doctor Wreide (Kenneth More), who’s in it for the cases of booze Curry promises him; and the young Belgian lieutenant, Surrier (Olivier Despax), who folds under pressure. This comes soon enough, as a United Nations peacekeeping plane strafes the train and the reprehensible Henlein sneaks around, plotting to steal the diamonds for himself. Providing distaff (if not really romantic) interest is Claire (Yvette Mimieux), who is saved after her husband is murdered by the advancing Simbas.

Character development is very much on the run here, as jazzman Jacques Loussier’s outstanding music provides nervous, pulse-quickening accompaniment. Everyone gets their hands dirty as the mission swiftly derails, including an awful scene where Henlein executes two children, declaring that they’re spies. Once the diamonds are obtained (another nail-biting scene, with closeups of the hands of the safe’s timer intercut with scenes of the marauding Simbas, who are as depersonalized and remorseless as the ghouls in that same year’s Night of the Living Dead) it’s the train that derails, delivering the diamonds and much of the human cargo into the hands of the attackers. Quick cuts imply terrible fates for Surrier and others that pushed the envelope in 1968 and are still brutal today.

Curry (Rod Taylor) and Ruffo (Jim Brown) accept the mission from Ubi (Calvin Lockhart).

Some jagged edits suggest that the film was trimmed, but reports of a longer, more sadistic cut still in existence haven’t been borne out. All for the better, I think; the movie walks right up to the knife edge of bloodthirsty tension as is. But the deletions apparently weren’t enough for veteran screenwriter Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce), who hid under a clever pseudonym (check your keyboard). A rough and tumble shoot in Jamaica (whose government had a steam train handy for use) resulted in a rough and tumble movie, whose ultimate success rests on the shoulders of its two charismatic stars.

Notwithstanding my lifelong affection for George Pal’s The Time Machine (the first pairing of Taylor and Mimieux in a different kind of green hell), Curry is the underrated actor’s best role. Setting the template for Australians abroad Rod Taylor worked with Hitchcock (The Birds), Antonioini (Zabriskie Point), Walt Disney (voicing 101 Dalmatians), and Cardiff on two prior occasions, including Young Cassidy (a biopic that John Ford had departed) and the wry 007 knockoff The Liquidator. Impressed by Taylor’s professionalism (he sustained several injuries making this film), Cardiff was intrigued by the actor’s mixture of tough-guy machismo and sensitivity and makes full use of it here. The mercenary’s constant simmer regarding Henlein comes to an explosive boil toward the end, and “leads to that rare final pursuit where you really don’t want the hero to take vengeance,” I noted in an overview of manufactured on demand (MOD) discs for Cineaste (“Life Gone MOD,” Vol. XXXVII, No. 1). Claiming to be “possessed” by the role, Taylor sure looks it, as Curry fulfills Smith’s death wish (“The hunting of this man will give me pleasure…I am the plaintiff, the judge and the executioner.”). But the screenplay revises the book’s coda, which has Curry and the much-abused Claire going off into the sunset. Here Curry, wilted with shame and self-disgust, gives himself up, in an unusual and what I called “strangely purifying” ending. Taylor’s finest moments on screen are his whipsawing from gleeful killer to abashed penitent. (Inglourious Basterds was his final credit.)

The uneasy alliance of Curry (Rod Taylor) and the treacherous Henlein (Peter Carsten) goes off the rails in Dark of the Sun, AKA The Mercenaries.

The film’s emotional core is its romance, or, rather, bromance, as Claire is a cipher. (The Dogs of War omits a lot from Forsyth’s fantastically detailed novel, but the truncated U.S. version left a love interest on the cutting-room floor…though JoBeth Williams’s scenes as Walken’s estranged wife, restored for DVD and Blu-ray, are actually quite pointed.) Leafing through Dave Zirin’s recent biography Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, I was surprised to find no mention of Dark of the Sun. Granted there’s much to cover in the life of the football great/actor/activist, but this is the best of the movie missions he went on in 1967–1968, when he also co-starred in The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. Ubi (an incisive turn by Lockhart) and the Simbas are irredeemable (The Dogs of War observes its African characters more sympathetically) but Ruffo is very much his own man; this is no white savior narrative. While acting as a sounding board for Curry’s conscience, he can more than look after himself (“This is our Bunker Hill…I came down from the trees by invitation and I’ll kill anybody who tries to send me back up again”) and maintains his equilibrium under fire. He’s not infallible, either—it’s Ruffo who brings Henlein into the fold, despite Curry’s skepticism. Brown and Taylor, who had a sometime testy relationship off camera, communicate a strong rapport throughout the film.

My first exposure to Dark of the Sun was on basic cable—cut, damaged, and panned-and-scanned. It still worked but the aforementioned MOD disc, repaired and in its correct aspect ratio, was a revelation. Needless to say Sun shines brightest on Blu-ray, in a rock-solid transfer that includes its trailer (“War is their profession…danger is their 9 to 5 job!”) and a commentary track featuring Trailers from Hell host Josh Olson, writer/podcasters Brian Saur and Elric D. Kane, and Larry Karaszewski, the co-writer of Ed Wood (1994) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). It’s a jokey, shapeless, beer-bust discussion in desperate need of preparation: Wiki and the Internet Movie Database are about the only sources cited, as no one’s read the book, or Kindled histories, biographies, or autobiographies for flavorful anecdotes that might perk up discussion that leans toward sniggering remarks about “gay subtext” and dubious assertions. (Admitting he’s never seen it, one of the commentators dismisses Cardiff’s sensitive 1960 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers as mere “Oscar bait.”) This bunch of guys failed in their mission.—Robert Cashill

Robert Cashill is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2