DARK OF THE SUN—–brutally violent, locomotive-paced action adventure has a lot of strong points and a few flaws, but first and foremost it’s a tough and gritty showcase for star Rod Taylor. One of the 60s oddly underrated leading men, he’s at his most virile and believable best here, as the leader of a company of mercenaries on a rescue mission in the mercy-deprived Congo. Contemporary and prescient, the 1968 gut punch is both of and ahead-of its time.
During the ‘Congo Crisis’ that roared in after independence from Belgium (seven decades of European despotism at its worst), a diamond consortium arranges with cynical soldier of fortune Taylor (aided by more politically attuned brother-in-arms Jim Brown) to rescue an isolated community of Europeans from the savagery of advancing Simba rebels in the breakaway state of Katanga. Just happens to be fifty-mil in glittering stones that need to be ‘saved’ as well. Things go haywire, blood is spilled. A lot.*
The story has been fairly well adapted from a typically bruising book by Wilbur Smith, king of African pulp adventure novels; the movie is a good one that misses being great but for a few slips.
Buffs will be able to detect the voice of Paul Frees, dubbing some of villainous Peter Carsten’s dialogue—it’s rather jarring. Yvette Mimieux adds little dimension beyond her physical attraction, and seems obligatory (looks great, so that debit cancels itself out: it’s a Guy Movie, Big Time, what me worry?). There’s some rough editing, probably the result of cuts to the extensive mayhem, which pushed the needle on the gore graph, going past standard gunfire to torture by fire, implied rape of nuns and male as well as female captives, machete chopping, chainsaws. It’s not pretty, but then neither is warfare, so if you can’t donate the plasma director Jack Cardiff and this uncompromising story demands, do shuffle back to your shawl knitting.
On the much stronger plus side, besides star power and blistering action, there is good color and costuming, appropriately simmering atmosphere (filmed in Jamaica, camerawork thanks to Edward Scaife, who finessed the overlooked Cardiff-Taylor biopic Young Cassidy, as well as Khartoum and The Dirty Dozen), fine supporting jobs from Brown (much better than usual) and from Kenneth More as a drunken wreck of a surgeon. Unusual and effective music score is by lauded French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier (this the best known of his 67 works for film and TV).
Perfectly cast Taylor looks fit and tough, and has a stunning dramatic scene, one of the best he ever was allowed. Coming at the end of a vicious bout, it’s a frank, bracing take on the moral corruption of violence. Taylor also claimed duty for rewriting much of the script (credited to Ranald MacDougall). Missed at the time by reviewers focusing on the gruesomeness, what the script and handling do adroitly is use the vehicle of a thriller to hone in on the tenor of the day, one drenched in real-life carnage on TV news from Vietnam and in the rioting streets. People may have abhorred conflict in theory and practice but they were addicted to it on film, and this one bridged the previous years Bonnie And Clyde and The Dirty Dozen with the following seasons poetic bloodbath of The Wild Bunch. Just as ‘Dozen ‘ deglamorized the military and ‘Bunch ‘ shotgunned westerns, Cardiff’s take on mercenaries—the hired guns possessing nobility in scads of B-movies and male hero-daydreams— is straight-shooting: these guys are mainly in it for the money. That the Simbas were irredeemably awful makes for a handy release valve of catharsis for the whipsawed audience. Today, with the line between ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘terrorists’ blurred, conflated by the same type of sleazeballs in suits who send Taylor on his mission, the movie seems more relevant than ever.
Taylor and Brown may not have enjoyed each others company (the glowering footballer had that effect on a number of his co-workers). Kenneth More in his memoir “More or Less” offered “Rod Taylor had been an amateur boxing champion before he became an actor, and he and James Brown threatened to settle disputes with their fists. Taylor fancied his chance of knocking out Brown … who was six-foot-four and built like a solid brick privy. They appeared to hate each other. Maybe they were only acting….” Who knows?
Critics of the time were shocked; it made around $3,000,000 in America, more in Europe, a big hit in France. 100 lean, mean minutes, with Andre Morell, Oliver Desplax, Bloke Medisane, Calvin Lockhart and Danny Daniels as ‘General Moses’.
- Terrible footnote to this certified badass : at least 100,000 perished in the Congo strife of the early 60s, and yet that pales next to the six million who have been butchered in one of the world’s worst, most grotesque, least reported, least cared-about (and ongoing) human catastrophes, the collection of horrors known as ‘The Great War of Africa’.