October 10, 2013

Movie Review: Dark of the Sun (1968)

"The gun's Chinese, Ruffo ... paid for by Russian rubles. The steel probably came from a West German factory built by French francs. Then it was flown out here on a South African airline probably subsidized by The United States. I don't think he got very far." - Captain Curry (Rod Taylor)

Director:Jack Cardiff

Writers: Ranald MacDougall and Adrian Spies (screenplay), Wilbur Smith (novel)

Producer: George Englund

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Peter Carsten, Jim Brown

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

I will admit right up front that I have a soft spot for Dark of the Sun and that likely colors my perception of it. I remember watching it as a kid for the first time on TV when I was 10 or so (this would be the early 80s) and being stunned by the violence that (for the time and my age) was pretty intense for television. But I loved war films and mercenary films, so having both together was like getting a present. I was also a military history fanatic even at that age, so it gave me something else to look up at the local library.*

The film is set during the Simba Rebellion in the Congo around 1964. The Congo had just recently gone through a brutal period of gaining independence from Belgium that devolved into secession of provinces, UN troops fighting to restore the government and mercenaries fighting for the regional leaders. Almost immediately as that settled down, the Simba Rebellion kicked off. They claimed to be fighting against government corruption. But they were basically murdering any Congolese citizens who they felt were "Westernized" as well as terrorizing Europeans who had remained in the Congo. The government of the Congo used mercenaries to lead and train the Congolese military to put down the rebellion.

That is where Dark of the Sun begins. Captain Curry (Rod Taylor) and his right-hand man Sergeant Ruffo (Jim Brown) are brought in by the government to lead a mission to retrieve European settlers from a remote town. Supposedly. That is secondary to their primary mission: to recover $50M in uncut diamonds, diamonds the government needs to stay afloat and pay the mercenaries putting down the Simbas. They give him 72 hours to return with the diamonds. If he does, he gets $50K.

That is the spine of the tale and, like most successful films, it is a simple one. The complexity should come from the characters and their interactions. And they do...as much as a film like this can have complexity.

Curry and Ruffo take command of 40 men from Stryker Blue, a crack native Congolese outfit. They also bring along an alcoholic doctor and an ex-Nazi soldier named Heinlein (Peter Carsten)**. This is done out of necessity, as Curry makes it clear early on that he doesn't like him at all. They are given a steam train to move upcountry. The rest of the film is about their trip and what they run into.

Along the way it becomes clear that Heinlein knows about the diamonds.They find a burned out house along the way with the only survivor being Claire (Yvette Mimieux) whom they bring along. Now, this is the only note in the film that rung totally false for me. Claire really doesn't do anything in the film except look gorgeous. And while one can appreciate that, it wasn't really necessary for the film. She does serve as a flashpoint for Heinlein and Curry, but they were already headed that way.

They reach the town only to find out that the diamonds are in a time-locked vault which won't open for three hours. This allows the Simbas to reach the town just as the vault opens and makes for the most memorable scene in the film.

Everyone is on board the train as it pulls away from the town. The Simbas are firing mortars at the train. It crosses a bridge and it looks like they have made it...until a final mortar round decouples the last car from the train. The car with not only the diamonds but most of the Europeans. It stops moving...and then starts slowly rolling back into town, into the psychotic arms of the Simbas.

Knowing what this means, what will happen...it makes your stomach clench. And while the following scenes give a hint of what happened (and is happening), they aren't nearly as powerful as watching that last car falls backwards into Hell.

What follows is their escape from the Simbas, betrayal by Heinlein and a final battle between Heinlein and Curry. The total film clocks in at just over 100 minutes.

What makes Dark of the Sun better than your average mercs / "men-on-a-mission" flick are the themes this film takes on. Racism is an obvious one. In the opening scenes a foreign journalist assumes that Ruffo can't speak English because he is black and calls him a "big ape" before Curry sets him straight. Heinlein has ill-concealed contempt for the government since it is run by non-Aryans.

But there is a deeper one, and it concerns the Congolese themselves. Dark of the Sun took on colonialism and the independence movements of African nations. Ruffo and the Congolese soldiers look at the Simbas with disgust, as little more than murderous animals. People that debase their country and countrymen. They are embracing the modern life that the West has brought to their country. But at the same time, they are dead-set against the West telling them what to do. As Sergeant Ruffo says in a conversation with Curry, "I came down out of the trees by invitation...and I'll kill anyone who tries to put me back." You cannot bring modern ideas and modern lifestyles to a people and then expect them to remain willing second-class citizens in their own country. It was a bold stance for a war film to take in the late 60s, a stance that all but said the West was causing some of these problems, especially as the independence wars in Africa were still ongoing.

Then there is Rod Taylor. He is just a charismatic guy who you cannot help but watch, and like, on the screen. Having someone like him in a film elevates it. And Jim Brown just nails it in this movie. Ruffo is a Congolese native who went to school in the US. He is a product of both worlds and wants to bring the Congo into the West...but on their terms and run by their people. It's a very nuanced performance.

The film even takes on violence itself. Can it be used to bring peace? To bring a people into modern society? And there is the (for its time) "twist" that Curry is by far more violent than Ruffo, more willing to go to that dark place the Simbas represent.

This film, until recently, was impossible to find except in poor VHS copies. Then Warners reissued it on DVD a couple of years ago, answering a long-held prayer of mine. You can buy it here for only $17. It's worth it.

So where does this slot on the list? I am thinking anywhere between Zulu and Play Dirty. Which is a pretty wide gulf. But I think I would place it just above Khartoum. Dark of the Sun had better pacing and a distinct lack of borderline-blackface actors.

Dark of the Sun is a fun ride and worth watching, a surprisingly deep movie for it's kind. I was afraid that time had colored my memories of the film. It didn't.


* Remember libraries? And the Dewey Decimal System? And how you actually had to look things up by hand instead of going to Wikipedia? Ah, the 80s...

** Heinlein was based on an actual mercenary named Siegfried Müller, who had been in the Wehrmacht during World War Two. He wasn't allowed into the West German Bundeswher in the 50s, so he emigrated to South Africa in 1962 and became a mercenary under "Mad" Mike Hoare (who is a movie unto himself). The scene where Heinlein is wearing a swastika medal on his shirt was somewhat taken from Müller. Although he never wore a swastika, Müller did wear his Iron Cross First Class medal while on operations in the Congo.


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