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The dynamic action-oriented poster artwork and a high-powered trailer for 1968's Dark of the Sun let us all know that the first war movie to top The Dirty Dozen was on its way. Made by a 'tough guy' Brit director famous for filming in hostile environments, this rather bloodthirsty bit of mayhem-escapism tosses together a number of controversial elements. In the 1960s the big powers were exporting war all over the globe even as former European colonies were undergoing traumatic civil wars. A cynical mission of mercy takes a train deep into hostile Congo territory, but the adventure hasn't the clear-cut lines of a WW2 fantasy like Von Ryan's Express. The heroes are mercenaries motivated by profit, working for a government with close ties to European mining interests. Ostensibly sent to rescue whites trapped in a remote outpost, the real purpose of their mission becomes all too clear -- the real prize is millions of dollars' worth of diamonds to finance more slaughter.
Famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus) had a brief but accomplished career as a director. In Dark of the Sun he combined his visual artistry with the love of gritty adventure that had served him well on tough movie assignments in far-off locales: Legend of the Lost, The Vikings, The African Queen. Cardiff was the kind of Brit who never got sick when others were down with dysentery; and his leading ladies found him so dashing that Sophia Loren's husband was compelled to join her on location. Dark of the Sun is uncompromising in that it pulls no punches about what was actually happening in the turmoil of post-Colonial Africa. Why Ranald MacDougall wrote the screenplay under an alias isn't clear, but the entire project revels in sadistic exploitation and salacious scenes of dismemberment, slaughter and rape. On its release the movie carried a marked feeling of taboo, the kind found in sleazy magazines that displayed pictures of beheaded execution victims in remote, lawless countries.
The story tries to be apolitical, but its message is that Africa and savagery are interchangeable words. Tough mercenary leader Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor, perfectly cast) assembles a relief train with his partner Ruffo (Jim Brown, fresh from Dirty Dozen), a Congolese who fights for patriotic reasons, not money. They take on the untrustworthy Henlein (Peter Carsten of The Quiller Memorandum), a fanatic who still wears a swastika. Despite a signed pass, the armed train is attacked by a U.N. fighter plane. Curry picks up the frantic Claire (Yvette Mimieux of The Time Machine), the only survivor of a massacre at a plantation. She's comforted by Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More), an alcoholic wreck who sobers up quickly in the present crisis. They reach the remote outpost only to find themselves in a time bind: sixty-two anxious refugees are ready to board and flee, but local agent Bussier (André Morell) has secured the precious diamonds in a safe with a time lock. It won't open for three hours ... which is just about when the murderous Simba army is expected to arrive.
Dark of the Sun does a great job of showing a completely amoral situation. The stranded white refugees would be ignored if there weren't diamonds to be had; the atmosphere of ruthlessness and venality is complete. The writers and director Cardiff seem intent on showing the full horror of the Simba onslaught, as if saying, "See, do you like this better than civilized colonial rule?" A binocular view shows dismembered corpses, and Claire talks of her father being hacked to bits. When the Simbas do attack and a number of whites fall into their hands, there is no hope of rescue -- for once the colonial patriarch must actually make good on his promise to shoot his wife in the head to spare her a "fate worse than death." The Simbas are the equivalent of the Apaches in John Ford's Stagecoach, where John Carradine moves to perform a similar service on a pregnant woman. Also borrowed from Stagecoach is the drunken doctor routine; European civilization is given another salute when Doc Wreid is inspired to sacrifice himself to his professional duty. The Simbas slaughter everyone, raping men and by implication nuns as well; some viewers claim to have seen alternate cuts showing more explicit attacks on the doctor's nurses and other victims. If Dark of the Sun wasn't one of the first films out under the new rating system, it certainly showed that "adult entertainment" could not be restrained. 1
Cardiff's stylish direction points the way to ever-grander comic-book depictions of armed violence. Muscular Rod Taylor is a wholly convincing action star and appears to do many of his own stunts. He leaps between car roofs while the train is in motion and plows into fights and action confrontations like he knows what he's doing. His tense buddy relationship with Jim Brown's Ruffo works fairly well, considering that their talks must bear the load of 'responsible' attitudes about African independence. For the rest of its running time Dark of the Sun is unadulterated pulp mayhem. Ten years earlier, Peter Carsten's Aryan superman would have been played by the interesting Peter van Eyck. Carsten's stock characterization is further marred by an unexplainable partial voice dub job by Paul Frees, which makes him sound like a generic nobody. A thick German accent would have been much more credible, even if we didn't understand everything Henlein said.
We couldn't believe our eyes when Dark of the Sun moved forward into content that other action films wouldn't touch. The despicable Henlein guns down two tiny African children, introduced just a moment before as cute kids being given candy. Half the refugees are raped and slaughtered by the Simbas, who are seen preparing to gang rape a French mercenary officer previously characterized as "too sensitive". After all that horror, the film ups the ante for violence. We've already seen Curry fend off a chainsaw attack by the kill-crazed Henlein, and watched as a man's head is forced under the wheel of a train car. 2 The final showdown between these two killers takes place in a riverbed with what looks like an extended ad for the 4-Wheel Drive Toyota Land Cruiser. The damn thing charges over terrain and bounces over big rocks nobody would dare try for real. I wonder if they ruined four or five of the vehicles getting the scene on film.
We're surprised to learn that the film was shot in the West Indies, not Africa. Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux worked together in The Time Machine. Cardiff met Taylor while directing Young Cassidy and just finished The Liquidators together. A top English name just a few years before, Kenneth More had starred in North West Frontier (Flame Over India). It is also a Stagecoach-like tale about a lone train racing through hostile rebel territory. The contrast with Sun is very strong, as Frontier sticks with the noble Colonial toy soldier game plan all the way.
Dark of the Sun opts for a 'moral' finish in which Curry honors his pledge of friendship to Ruffo by turning himself in for a court-martial on a murder charge. Besides being a precursor to a great narration line in Apocalypse Now 3 , this action seems to make little sense - this isn't an official army and Curry is its ultimate commander anyway, charged with doing whatever is necessary to bring off the mission. But it does deflect attention from the film's unseen conclusion. Curry presumably turns over the fortune in diamonds to President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), who will use it to raise yet another army of killers. But that's okay, because we cozy theater patrons have already gotten our ticket's worth of prime action thrills.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Dark of the Sun is a fine enhanced widescreen transfer of this colorful Panavision show; we're told that Cardiff shared the camerawork with the credited cinematographer Edward Scaife. From the stylish hi-con titles to the expert blocking of action scenes, the show is an action winner. The trailer included in the disc package is the one I remember, that promises more violence than any movie yet made.
Action fans have been wondering for years why Dark of the Sun hasn't been seen on laserdisc or DVD before now; it's built up quite a cult reputation. The WAC disc delivers every unsavory thrill in fine fashion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dark of the Sun rates:
1. Viewers insist that older, longer cuts exist of Dark of the Sun, showing more violence, gore, and sexual assaults -- but nobody has produced an example to back up their claim. However, the British Board of Film Classification gave the film a Certificate X rating on January 19, 1968, at 100 minutes and 25 seconds, the length of this Warner Archive Collection disc. Some scene transitions do seem a bit abrupt, and a couple of violent moments do look as if they were trimmed. Is there a longer "international" or "Continental" version of The Mercenaries out there somewhere?
This note from correspondent Stefan Andersson (8.01.11), who describes the handling of Dark of the Sun's censorship in Sweden:
Hi Glenn -- Yes, of course you're welcome to use the censorship info on The Mercenaries. It's on the Swedish Board of Film Censors site, all public info. I'll repeat it here with a few specifications:
In June 1968, The Mercenaries was banned from public showing in Sweden at 100 mins. 41 secs.
Five scenes described, but six cuts listed -- there must have been two cuts to one scene. The specification of chainsaw shots, graphic closeups and shots of corpses implies that several snippets (maybe too short and/or numerous to list) were cut from each scene. This way of softening the intensity and detail of violence within a scene was quite common. Swedish censorship index cards often list specific shots or closeups to be shortened or cut entirely.
Sometimes the Board lists timings of cuts (mins. secs.) but not here. Swedish title: "Last Train from Katanga". -- Best, Stefan
2. I hope that train wheel was a disconnected prop. Anyone who has been around trains knows how pointlessly risky shooting such a scene with a real train might be ... I mean, Buster Keaton is a marvel, but many of the stunts he performs in The General are just plain INSANE.
3. "Indicting someone for murder out here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500."
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T'was Ever Thus.