Tuesday, September 22, 2015

It's Getting "Dark" in Here!

At once an obscure, unfairly overlooked adventure epic while also enduring as a cult favorite held dear by many fans, up to and including some of today's most famous and influential directors, Dark of the Sun (1968) is a captivating, brutal, eye-popping movie with a great cast. Based on a 1965 novel called The Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith, it concerns a desperate rescue mission taking place within the Belgian Congo during that region's fiercely bloody series of uprisings and civil wars.

The novel concerned four white male mercenaries (later joined by a Belgian female civilian) who undergo a tumultuous experience completing their mission and are either a part of or are confronted with considerable violence. The briskly-paced, brief (under 300 pages) novel was adapted reasonably-closely for the film adaptation, though, like most transitions, some elements were augmented along the way.

The movie kicks off with plenty of unrest at a Congo airfield in which people are struggling to get out, but held back by guards. However, just arriving are mercenaries (an alternate title for this film is “The Mercenaries”) Rod Taylor and Jim Brown. The rugged, brawny, masculine duo has been sent for by the acting leader of the Congo, Calvin Lockhart. (Do take note of the gray-haired woman in green just right of center in the crowd photo. More on her later.)
Lockhart needs money for guns and other resources in order to maintain govern- mental control and one sure way to retrieve it is by sending Taylor and Brown on a rescue mission. Thing is, the people they are to rescue are incidental. The real arc of the mission is to obtain $50 million worth of uncut diamonds which are located in a town called Port Reprieve, 300 miles away! They are to head by train to the town, collect any and all survivors, but be certain to bring back the ice...

For this life-risking challenge, Taylor will be paid $50,000 and must be back with the diamonds within three days at most. Brown, his close associate, doesn't even want any of the money. Though raised abroad (which conveniently accounts for his American dialect), he was raised in the Congo by parents who were transitioning from superstitious natives to contemporary citizens. Don't Taylor and Brown look fetching in their khaki shorts?

Brown has barely been given the mission when he sits down at the bar to sketch out the details of how the train needs to be set up and which personnel will be required. The inset shows how his plans segued into reality after plenty of coordinating and arranging at the train depot.

Taylor turns to local doctor Kenneth More, a rather down- trodden fellow with a great love of booze. After roguishly toying with him back and forth, Taylor convinces him to come along on the mission in exchange for a case of Scotch (with more to come once they arrive back.) Taylor gives him one bottle in advance and, knowing that More will soon become plastered, tells him he'll have someone come to get him at dawn when the group plans to depart. Here, the director makes good use of the widescreen format and Taylor's gams.

Next, Taylor meets up with former (?) Nazi Peter Carsten who's a key part of the military establish- ment of Lockhart's reign. Taylor loathes Carsten, but knows he must rely on him for his own knowledge of the territory and for help with the use of forty soldiers that are requested for the mission. Karsten flaunts a swastika pendant and takes pleasure in baiting Taylor at most every opportunity.
The mission gets underway with a small series of train cars: an engine, a caboose, a passenger car and two open freight cars barricaded with sandbags and outfitted with automatic weapons (including anti-aircraft rifles.) Another officer Olivier Despax joins Taylor and his crew, though he proves to be inexperienced and tentative in his approach.

Despax falls short when an airplane under the direction of U.N. forces opens fire on the train, believing the heavily-armed convoy is on its way to cause harm rather than perform a rescue. Despite Taylor's protestations on the train's radio, his men are fired upon and some are killed, with one of the passenger cars engulfed in flame. Despax is unable to continue manning one of the guns in the face of death. (You'll note in the French lobby still below, Frenchman Despax is given prestige billing which isn't found in the movie's actual credits.)
More, who had to be carried on to the train by Brown during a drunken haze, is horrified to awaken and find that Taylor has pitched his entire case of Scotch overboard. The two have a heated exchange in which More assures Taylor that he will find a way to make him pay for going along on this mission alcohol-free.

Now, thirty minutes in, we are introduced to the first primary female character. As the train chugs up to a Belgian planter's estate, it is obvious that some carnage has taken place. A body with one leg removed is lying in the drive and rushing through the brush is a distraught Yvette Mimieux, clad only in a nightgown and an overcoat.
Taylor helps Mimieux on board the train where she attempts to convey what has happened despite considerable shock. She tells them that revolu- tionaries came in the night, killing everyone but her because she'd been sent to an underground hiding place.

Taylor inquires as to who the smallest man is on the train, so that he can obtain some clothes for the bedraggled Mimieux. The doctor, who isn't doing particularly well himself without the crutch of the bottle, attempts to calm her down and reassure her that she's now safe.
The train pulls up to a watering station that appears to be abandoned. Just as the soldiers are readying to pull out again, two native children appear in tattered clothes. Carsten encourages Brown to question them and see if there are rebels anywhere nearby, but the kids don't appear to know anything. Taylor instructs Carsten to give them some food and send them back to wherever they came from, but Carsten – in a shocking move – disobeys Taylor.

Carsten, who is quickly emerging as the fly in the mission's ointment, next turns his attentions to Mimieux, who is not at all interested. Taylor tells him to back off and then out of nowhere Carsten goes mad, walloping and beating Taylor savagely.
He next picks up a nearby chainsaw that was in use for firewood and starts swinging away at Taylor! Taylor has to defend himself with little bits of log as Carsten relentlessly aims the chainsaw at him, scraping his stomach with it at one point! (This is one of the movie's most famous sequences.)
At last Taylor gets the upper hand and pushes Carsten to the ground, maneuvering his head onto the train track just in front of one of the wheels. He then calls for the engineer to start the train so that Carsten's head will be severed!

Brown, realizing that the mission relies on Carsten's knowledge and expertise, pulls the men away from the train and pounces on a furious Taylor to convince him to call it off. Reluctantly, Taylor agrees to let Carsten live. (It must be noted that the use of undercranking during filming lends an unfortunately erratic tinge to part of this scuffle.)
Now arriving at Port Reprieve, the soldiers are confronted by a horde of townspeople eager to get the hell out of Dodge before the bloodthirsty Simbas arrive. Taylor is greeted by the leader of the town Andre Morell, who gives him the decidedly unhappy news that, although the citizens of the town are ready to leave, the diamonds that Taylor has come for are in a time-locked safe that can not be opened for three more hours!!

Morell's wife takes Mimieux to get her a change of clothes (which, hilariously, include figure-hugging white slacks that do not seem at all like something that the wife would have hanging around in her closet!)

Taylor is astonished to find, in this ostensibly rural and fairly rundown-looking town, an elaborate underground bunker with a massive vault contained within! It is clearly impenetrable and he has no choice but to wait out the three hours, even though Morell has informed him that the Simbas probably know that he is coming there and will soon be converging on the town with a taste for blood.

Morell implores Taylor to take a side trip to a nearby convent where a priest and several nuns have refused to leave and join the rest of the evacuees. Taylor, with Mimieux in tow, takes a jeep to the convent where he is informed by the priest that no one from there is leaving. Not only that, but a desperately ill native woman has been in childbirth for three straight days and a doctor is sorely needed.

Back at Port Reprieve, the reliably detestable Carsten has been getting doctor More drunk and is shooting up the local watering hole for fun. By the time Taylor has returned from the convent to collect More to deliver the baby, More is plastered and has no desire to go. Taylor forces him to, however.

Though she may not look it in this shot, the pregnant woman is in total agony from a pending breech birth and More decides that he has to do a Caesarian section on her. He wants another drink first, though, which Taylor denies, leading to an argument that Mimieux has to put to a stop with an outburst.
With time ticking, Taylor has no choice but to leave More at the convent and get back to the town. Once there, even though the timer is very close to clicking, the Simbas have arrived and they are ready to slaughter anything and anyone they get their hands on! This portion of the film, in particular, is extremely suspenseful as Taylor sweats out the retrieval of the diamonds as rampaging natives begin to close in all around him.
Finally, the diamonds are collected and everyone heads for the redirected train. Here's the thing... Remember that heavy, gray-haired lady I pointed out at the start of this post? She was waiting at the airport to exit the country. Now, she's on the train!!! In a glaring continuity error, this extra wound up in two places, 300 miles apart! No, bitch, you do not get to play in two totally different scenes in the same dress and get double pay and expect to get it past me!! LOL

Anyway, with everyone piled on the train and it chugging away uphill as fast as it can, the rebels begin firing shells towards it. Morell, under fire, darts into the last car with the diamonds to join his frantic wife, against Taylor's orders to go to the caboose (which is now near the front of the train.)

Unfortunately, as the train has just crossed a large bridge, a shell lands on one of the couplings and the last car, filled with people and the diamonds, too, comes unhitched and begins to roll back to Port Reprieve!
Not only is this an exciting sequence in the film, but it is also vividly gut-wrenching (and unexpected. We don't expect the rescuees to undergo this.) Taylor's own section of the train is damaged beyond use, too, so everyone has to get off and hide in the terrain while he decides what to do.
Back in town, things have taken a horrifying turn. The Simbas are destroying everything and everyone in sight. They're drinking heavily, torturing and raping anyone they can and Despax is getting the worst of it.

In retaliation for being one of the officers who once reigned over them, a gaggle of the rebels beat him savagely, then shuck his pants, hurl him across the pool table (securing his head in place with a boot-covered foot) and have their way with him.

Meanwhile, Taylor and Brown devise a scheme in which Brown will adopt the guise of a Simba and carry the “unconscious” Taylor into the hotel where they hope to discover the whereabouts of the diamonds and get them back.

On the way and once inside, they can hardly believe the carnage around them, but Brown does his best to act as if he belongs among them. Finally in place, he puts Taylor down and the two of them open fire on everyone inside.

Brown mows as many Simba down as he can while Taylor jumps off a balcony and onto another pool table to grab the diamonds. He barely escapes with his life as he and Brown dart through an open window and into a truck that Carsten has secured (one of several they have stolen to transport the remaining survivors back to civilization.)

Things, however, are far from over. The gasoline truck, so all-important for making the trip back over rough terrain, is destroyed. Taylor decides he has to go back to an abandoned radio room and send a request for provisions to be dropped to them from Lockhart's army.

While Taylor is gone, Carsten finally unleashes his truly horrible side and starts looking for the diamonds wherever he can and at any cost. He doesn't mind killing in order to get his hands on the diamonds and even tracks down Mimieux down at the river to assault her until she tells him where they are, though she has no clue.
Once back, Taylor is completely outraged and becomes deranged. Taylor learns that Carsten has fashioned a raft and is one his way down the river. He chases Carsten down like an animal and attacks him with relentless force.
The two scuffle in and around rocks, on hanging vines and in the water during what is one of 1960s' cinema's most visually arresting fight sequences.
In the wake of the knock-down, drag-out, visceral battle between the men, Taylor is half out of his mind, much to the disappointment of his subordinate officer Bloke Modisane. The denouement of the film was changed in order to suit (perhaps) image-conscious Taylor and seems a bit pat, though it must be said that it also provides a moment of substantial emotion.

Dark of the Sun is, first and foremost, a riveting action movie. By the standards of 1968, it clips along with tremendous purpose while not eschewing quiet moments of introspection and character development. (In many ways it resembles an action western, with Indians replaced by natives.) Directed by Jack Cardiff, who was previously the cinematographer on such eye-popping movies as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) among many others, it is always beautiful with incredible use of color and framing.

One debit is the occasional use of rear-projection. The location filming is so dazzling and authentic-looking that when the movie suddenly switches to sometimes-so so/sometimes-shoddy rear projection, the effect is a jarring and not particularly pleasant one, though this was totally standard procedure for that time, particularly when it came to driving scenes.

A major plus is the evocative music by jazz pianist and composer Jacques Loussier. Known for his arrangements of various Bach pieces, Loussier also composed the scores for many French films from the early-'60s through the late-'90s. He is still alive today at eighty.

The lesser-known film seems to have nonetheless inspired those in the comic industry judging from this 1986 issue of G.I. Combat in which a trio of mercenaries (one black) are aiding a blonde female on the run from a throng of angry natives.

Taylor, an Underworld favorite who's been profiled here, was an amazingly versatile performer who could do anything from suave romance to light comedy to the gritty action required in this movie. The Birds (1963) and Hotel (1967) are just two of the many films of his we love.

His rugged, burly physicality was just right for this role (loosely based upon a real-life mercenary who was hired for the Congo conflict and who later also inspired a character in The Wild Geese, 1978.)

He and Brown established a smooth, believable chemistry together and were a great-looking pair (seen here with producer George Englund, who was Cloris Leachman's husband for twenty-five years.)

This film reunited Taylor with Mimieux, who was in 1960's The Time Machine with him. They, too, made an appealing-looking couple. A love scene between them (in which Taylor reported forced himself on her until she responds in kind) was cut from the film, but a still is shown here...
...and it made some of the movie's posters such as this one.
Taylor passed away in January of 2015 of a heart attack at age eighty-four. His final film role won him a SAG Ensemble Award and was as Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds (2009.) That movie was directed by Quentin Tarantino who, along with Martin Scorcese and others, is a big fan of Dark of the Sun. Tarantino even had several of the music tracks from Sun incorporated into Basterds.
Though Mimieux never became an obsession of ours, it's remarkable how many of our favorite films she has popped up in! Where the Boys Are (1960), Light in the Piazza (1962), Diamond Head (1962), Skyjacked (1972) and The Neptune Factor (1973) are only several of them.
Like many of her films (which have a tendency to feature a lot of men and her as the sole significant female), she is mostly attractive window-dressing here, but does have a scene or two with some grit. Nevertheless, at no time is she shown in the way depicted on this soundtrack album cover! Yes, in her first scene she is wearing a nightgown and has a pistol in her hand, but she never fires a gun, nor directly takes on the enemy in the fashion shown here. Mimieux is alive today at seventy-three, but hasn't appeared on screen since 1992.

Brown is another Underworld favorite who has his own profile here. This was his third feature film following a supporting role in Rio Conchos (1964) and a featured one in The Dirty Dozen (1967), another movie notable for the level of violence it contained. Brown was a top football running back who quit midstream to pursue a movie career when the two enterprises began to overlap.
A fit, muscular hulk of a man, he possessed a gentle demeanor on screen that made him a terrific counterpoint to stars with more forthright personalities like Taylor and Burt Reynolds. Later, he emerged as a Blaxploitation hero in take-no-prisoners flicks like Slaughter (1972) and Three the Hard Way (1974) among others.
During the making of Sun, which was filmed in Jamaica, not the actual Congo, Brown and the cast had free time to spend on the beach swimming, tossing football and so on. Here we see a shot of him enjoying the location. He is still with us today at seventy-nine.

German actor Carsten was a very prolific performer from the 1950s through the mid-1990s. Other English-language films he worked on in this time frame include The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and Zeppelin (1971.) One unfortunate thing about his work in Sun is that for a considerable part of the time, his own voice isn't used and omnipresent voice-actor Paul Frees takes over. It's distracting and takes away somewhat from what is a skillfully villainous portrayal. Carsten passed away in 2012 of cancer at the age of eighty-three.
From the 1940s on, More provided a variety of movie performances, charming and/or dramatic, and was a highly-regarded stage actor in Great Britain as well. In fact, he had a theatre named after him while he was still living. He lends plenty of dramatic heft to his comparatively small role. Memorable films include A Night to Remember (1958), Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and Scrooge (1970) among many others. Parkinson's Disease claimed him in 1982 at age sixty-seven, though he had acted up until 1980.

Morell began working in films in the late-'30s and some of his include Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Ben-Hur (1959) and Barry Lyndon (1975.) He remained active as a useful character actor on screen right up until his death in 1978 of a heart attack at age sixty-nine.

Lockhart was a Bahaman actor who enjoyed a spate of featured roles in the 1960s and '70s from The High Commissioner and Joanna (both 1968) to Halls of Anger, Myra Breckinridge and Cotton Comes to Harlem (all 1970.) In the mid-'80s, he popped up briefly on Dynasty as a love interest for Diahann Carroll and continued with small film roles. After suffering a stroke, he died from its complications in 2007 at age seventy-two.

Despax was a guitarist and French pop idol who turned to acting for a time in the mid-'60s. He performed quite a few Beatles covers in his native land. His is a surprising role for someone with a teen following considering his character is first presented as a coward prior to being viciously attacked sexually by the Simbas. Sadly, Despax was taken by leukemia in 1974 at only age thirty-five.
Though the rape sequence was truncated in the finished product (as were quite a few other violent sequences from the chainsaw fight to a key murder to the final battle between Taylor and Carsten), this rare still photo shows some of Despax' white briefs and his hairy legs, neither of which are quite this visible in the movie.

Dark of the Sun predates The Wild Bunch (1969), whose “ballet of blood” changed forever audiences' acceptance of violence on the big screen, though it came after Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which had already sent viewers reeling with its depiction of gunfire and killing. The Production Code was crumbling fast, soon to be replaced with a ratings system which was still not yet in place at this point. Director Cardiff made numerous cuts to the movie prior to release in order to try to tone down the brutality and gore, though he claimed that even what he cut was nothing compared to the true atrocities of a conflict that cost an estimated 100,000 lives. Diehard fans of the movie long for a restored version, though at this point it seems far from likely ever to see the light of the sun.

I saw this for the first time about ten or fifteen years ago and seeing it again recently in its widescreen, high-def glory impressed upon me even further that this is one of the most arresting adventure movies of its day and deserves a broader audience of fans. A hidden treasure if you will!