It’s always tempting to start a post about a movie like Dark of the Sun by saying they don’t make them like this any more. I say this about movies a lot, particularly movies from the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not entirely sure they made many films like this all that often back then either.
Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries) was directed by legendary British cinematographer, 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 my late dad loved his books.
The movie stars Rod Taylor as Captain Bruce Curry – in what is commonly agreed to be his best role – as a cynical, tough as nails mercenary. Curry is paid by President Ubi (the wonderful 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 to retrieve 50 million dollars in diamonds sitting in the township’s time-locked vault. Ubi needs the diamonds to buy 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 (prolific German actor, Peter Carsten) and Claire (Yvette Mimieux), in her second pairing with Taylor, the first being The Time Machine in 1960, 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 and the wonderfully haunting score by Jacques Loussier, come together almost seamlessly. The film was shot in Jamaica, using the country’s railway system, which included a working steam train. It can be read as a drama and a quasi heist film, but most of all, 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 chainsaw wielding Henlein.
The film’s centrepiece is 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.
I read Charles Taylor’s excellent book, Opening Wednesday at a Theatre or Drive In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s, over the Christmas break. Taylor posits that overlooked American B movies of the 1970s — although I’d argue a similar point can be made with a lot of films that appeared in the late 1960s – represent a rich hidden history of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-Summer of Love America. I believe this point will not be much of a revelation to many readers of this blog. But for some, perhaps younger people who have grown up in world of more limited film choices and more identity based film criticism, Taylor’s point is an important one.
Taylor is careful not to make exaggerated claims about many of these movies and, let’s be honest, for ever Prime Cut (1972) or The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), a lot of dross was made. But one passage in the book particularly struck me. ‘In the ’70s, he writes, ‘the gritty and somewhat pessimistic nature that has always been characteristic of B movies translated into a refusal to keep bad things from happening to good characters, a resistance to handing out easy, happy endings. That’s why it’s possible to watch these movies now – despite the pulpiness, despite the obvious lashings of nudity and violence to satisfy the exploitation crowd – and feel as if you are being treated like an adult.’
This is certainly how I feel about The Dark of the Sun. While it wasn’t a B movie, it didn’t do particularly well upon its release in 1968 (it first opened in London on February 8 that year) 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, and finally on one of the Warner Archive Collection DVDs.
Dark of the Sun has a lurid pulp sensibility. But it also displays a razor sharp political sensibility. Complex racial politics, colonialism and imperialism, and the ethical decisions involved in being a mercenary are all interrogated. 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 soldier 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.”
A large part of the film’s political vitality derives from its topicality. The film’s screenplay is set during the Simba Rebellion of 1964-65, when mercenaries were recruited by the Congolese government to fight a leftist insurgency. It also riffed off the exploits of real life British-Irish soldier of fortune “Mad Mike” Hoare, who become something of a media celebrity (including writing a number of books), during his time fighting in the Congo and later through his involvement in an attempted coup d’etat in the Seychelles, a chain of islands off the east coast of Africa.
Dark of the Sun was the first of what were to be many mercenary films made by Hollywood, including The Last Grenade (1970), Wild Geese (1978) – supposedly based on Hoare’s exploits and on which he worked as an advisor, and The Dogs of War (1980).
None of these other films come anywhere near Dark of the Sun.