It’s always tempting to start any discussion of a movie like Dark of the Sun by saying they don’t make them like this any more.
Hell, I say this about movies, particularly sixties and seventies movies, all the time on my blog. But thinking about it, I’m not entirely sure they made many films like this all that often back then either.
Dark of the Sun didn’t do particularly well upon its release in 1968 and remained pretty much unknown until recently when Tarantino championed it, giving it cult status, and Warner Archive released a manufacture on demand disk.
I first saw Dark of the Sun with my parents in the early eighties on the Sunday night movie of the week. It’s hard to conceptualise now, but the Sunday night movie was a big deal back then. I’ve watched it many times since, first on an old second hand VHS copy I owned, then on a copied DVD version bought on the Internet.
Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries) was directed by Jack Cardiff and adapted from a 1965 adventure novel by the African-born British writer, Wilbur Smith, not really a regular fixture on my reading list but dad loved his books.
The movie stars Rod Taylor as Captain Bruce Curry, in what is commonly agreed to be his best role. He plays a cynical, tough as nails mercenary, paid by President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), the sleazy head of a teetering African state, and his fat Belgium mining company overlord, to lead a detachment of local soldiers on a steam train to a remote township and rescue the Europeans surrounded by rebels known as the Simbas.
Curry knows the real mission is 50 million dollars in diamonds sitting in the township’s time-locked vault. Ubi needs the diamonds to weapons to fight the rebels. “I’m running out of time Captain,” Ubi tells to Curry. “They’ve started to pull the plug on me, those bankers in Switzerland, Brussels and France.”
Curry’s friend and partner is Ruffo, played by Jim Brown, one of my favourite sixties action stars. Also along for the ride is an alcoholic doctor (Kenneth Moore), a brutal Nazi mercenary named Henlein, and Claire (Yvette Mimieux), a young widow who joins them mid-mission for protection from the rampaging Simbas.
Dark of the Sun is one of those rare movies where everything, the story, the cast, the look (Jamaica stood in for the Congo), the haunting score by Jacques Loussier, come together almost seamlessly.
It’s a tremendous action film, a lean, ruthless, hard-boiled story that has everything from Curry and his men being accidentally strafed by their own side’s fighter jets, to a brutal fight scene between the mercenary leader and a chain saw wielding Henlein.
The film’s centrepiece still blows me away, a nail biting sequence in which Curry and his mercenaries, having packed the frightened expatriates onto the train for the return journey, wait for the time delay safe to open. They get to the diamonds just as the rebels attack. But as the train pulls away from the township, a well-placed Simba mortar shell blows up a coupling, separating the carriage with the civilians and diamonds from the rest of the train. Curry and his men watch in horror as the carriage moves slowly backwards down the hill into the hands of the waiting Simbas.
It’s very bad news for the Europeans on the rogue carriage. It also means Curry and Ruffo have to find some way of getting back into the now rebel held township to recover the diamonds.
Dark of the Sun has a pulp sensibility. But it also has a razor sharp political edge. Racial politics, colonialism and the political decisions involved in being a mercenary are all interrogated. In particular, while Curry is only in it for the money, Ruffo, born in Africa and educated in the US, is genuinely torn about his role as a solider of fortune. “To you this is just a big hunk of real estate called the Congo,” Ruffo tells Curry about their upcoming mission. “To me this is our Bunker Hill, our storming of the Winter Palace.”
Dark of the Sun was the first what were to be many soldier of fortune films made by Hollywood, including The Last Grenade (1970) Wild Geese (1978) and The Dogs of War (1980), just to name the best known.
None of them come anywhere near Dark of the Sun.