It’s tendon-biting combat, with guns, trains, planes, chainsaws, and an indestructible all-terrain vehicle (that still couldn’t stand the potholes in the street of Los Angeles)! Rod Taylor, Jim Brown and Yvette Mimieux blast their way through one of the roughest of the ’60s action spectacles, as mercenaries on a mission of mercy that’s really a venal grab to ‘rescue’ a fortune in diamonds. Director Jack Cardiff pushed the limits of acceptability on this one — legends persist about longer, more egregiously violent cuts.
Dark of the Sun
Warner Archive Collection
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 100 min. / The Mercenaries / Street Date December 18, 2011 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Peter Carsten, Jim Brown, Kenneth More, André Morell, Olivier Despax, Guy Deghy, Bloke Modisane, Calvin Lockhart.
Cinematography: Edward Scaife.
Film Editor: Ernest Walter
Original Music: Jacques Loussier
Written by Quentin Werty (Ranald MacDougall), Adrian Spies from the novel by Wilbur Smith
Produced by George Englund
Directed by Jack Cardiff
1968’s Dark of the Sun has been coming into its own as a kind of watershed action film, a picture that presents a real-world problem — political and racial unrest in former African colonies — but treats it as just another place to stage violent escapist thrills.
The dynamic action-oriented poster artwork and a high-powered trailer say it all: Dark of the Sun is the big-budget, ultra-violent successor to the previous year’s The Dirty Dozen. Made by a ‘tough guy’ Brit director noted for filming in hostile environments, this bloodthirsty bit of mayhem-escapism tosses together a number of controversial elements from the late 1960s, when the big powers were exporting war all over the globe. Former European territories 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, where idealism and high morals guarantee a good outcome for the virtuous heroes. These heroes are mercenaries motivated by profit, working for a government colluding with 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) also enjoyed a notable 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, all with a dubious racial bias. 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 the given message is that the words ‘Africa’ and ‘savagery’ are interchangeable. 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. It’s like the Wild West down there, despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers. They enlist the untrustworthy Henlein (Peter Carsten of The Quiller Memorandum), a former Nazi who still wears a swastika. Despite a signed pass, the armed relief train is attacked by a U.N. fighter plane. Curry picks up Claire (Yvette Mimieux of The Time Machine), the frantic sole 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 takes an almost unhealthy attitude toward 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. Not too many films were made about savage African massacres of the 1960s. French director Claire Denis’s 2009 White Material with Isabelle Huppert addresses the same historical terror in a French colony.
The Simbas are the equivalent of the Apaches in John Ford’s Stagecoach, except that when things go bad, no last-minute rescue saves anybody from the bloody carnage. When a number of whites fall into the hands of the Simbas attack the colonial patriarch must, for once actually make good on his promise to shoot his wife in the head to spare her a ‘fate worse than death.’ 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 turns noble and sacrifices 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. There is certainly context to suggest that more violent scenes were filmed and then cut. The demise of one villain is elided with a pan to a river running with blood, but Rod Taylor’s Curry had previously threatened to cut off the man’s head!
[Sidebar: Some viewers posting on the web insist that older, longer cuts exist of Dark of the Sun, showing more violence, gore, and sexual assaults. But no examples have appeared to back up the claim. 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. But a couple of violent moments do look as if some trimming has been done — slightly mismatched action continuity suggests the removal of shots. Accounts of the filming and some stills do imply that more explicitly gruesome action was shot for a number of scenes. Perhaps Cardiff & Co. just went all-out, leaving the producer and the studio to pull back the excess. Is there a longer ‘international’ or ‘Continental’ version of The Mercenaries out there somewhere?
Dark of the Sun does not hide its unadulterated pulp mayhem behind ‘meaningful’ artistic or moral messages. Jack Cardiff’s stylish direction has a flair for dynamic action, and 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. The forever-young Yvette Mimieux is mainly a generic Girl Along For The Ride, to be rescued by the manly-men and react emotionally. The real soulful relationship is between Curry and Ruffo, and at heart it is stock-mechanical as well.
“Put the swastika back on.”
Things really go wild with Peter Carsten’s portrayal of the Aryan superman character Captain Henlein, which many viewers doubtlessly found offensive. We’re told that real-life newsfilm of the 1960s had publicized a similar ex-Nazi mercenary fighting in the Congo. The despicable Henlein guns down two tiny African children, introduced just a moment before as cute kids being given candy. His excuse is to keep the mission a secret. Henlein therefore is an irredeemable villain, but his Overkill Mentality only highlights a shortcoming of movies about ‘good’ commando missions. Events never force Curry or Ruffo into a situation where civilians must be killed or sacrificed to achieve their goal — the Vera Cruz conundrum that in real life makes ‘noble military incursions’ just as reprehensible as actions by forces identified as Evil Enemies.
As it is, Henlein’s distasteful killing carries an extra burden of guilt: it is black children that are murdered. If the Nazi shot some white kids, their bodies wouldn’t be carried off into the bushes like unfortunate roadkill animals. Basic ‘movie justice’ would demand that Henlein be immediately shot without discussion, if Curry and Ruffo were to retain any claim to basic decency. Dark of the Sun instead repeatedly acknowledges Henlein to be a valuable combat asset… minus the occasional outrageous atrocity, of course.
Peter Carsten’s brutal but colorless characterization of Henlein is further marred by an unexplainable partial voice dub job by Paul Frees, which makes him sound like a cartoon character. A thick German accent would have been more credible, even if we couldn’t understand everything Henlein said. It’s a strange production decision for such an expensive movie. Ten years earlier, the interesting Peter van Eyck might have been cast as Henlein, except that the principled van Eyck would likely have thought that a character that offensive has no place in a light entertainment thriller.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when Dark of the Sun proceeded into more content that other action films wouldn’t touch. The Simbas rape and slaughter half the refugees. We also see them preparing to gang-rape a French mercenary officer previously characterized as ‘too sensitive.’ After all that horror, the film ups the ante for violence even further. We’ve already seen Curry fend off a chainsaw attack by the kill-crazed Henlein, and watched as he forces Henlein’s head under the wheel of a train car. I sincerely hope the train wheel was a disconnected prop. Anyone who has worked around trains knows how horribly risky the real thing would be … I mean, Buster Keaton is a marvel, but many of the stunts he performs in The General are just plain INSANE.
The final showdown between these two killers takes place in a riverbed with what amounts to an extended advertisement 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 how many vehicles they ruined 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 had become stars 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 (aka Flame Over India). It also is 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. 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. Curry feels guilty about executing a traitorous murderer? Why does Henlein get such consideration? Why no mention of things like firing on a UN airplane, or insuring the slaughter of Bussier’s refugees, just to get his $$ mission bonus? For that matter, the ‘moral’ pledge between the partners means little when they’re both engaged in such outrageous criminality in the first place. Curry’s placing himself under arrest seems a filmmaker’s way to sidestep the bankruptcy of the whole enterprise, Curry’s mission and the movie as well. (It’s just a movie, Glenn…)
The ‘moral’ finale also deflects 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 to recover diamond territory for the Europeans. But that’s okay, because we’ve already gotten our ticket’s worth of jolting action thrills. And remember, all of the outrageous mayhem was rated “PG”!
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Dark of the Sun is identical in content to the WAC’s 2011 DVD, with the added sharpness and color range of HD. The Panavision show really shines; we’re told that the artistic 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. The WAC disc delivers every unsavory thrill in fine fashion.
New to this edition, and a surprise from the Warner Archive Collection, is a fresh audio commentary. The Trailers from Hell contributors Josh Olson and Larry Karazewski team up with Brian Sauer and Elric D. Kane. The track has a definite party atmosphere, which will surely appeal to the male action fans in love with the film. The assembled writers have fun praising aspects of the film and dissing an element or two that don’t pass muster. It’s not a track that sheds light on the film’s mysteries. When they get to head-scratching issues like Peter Carsten’s partly-redubbed voice, the commentators merely express their own bewilderment. They end up endorsing the ‘moral’ ending, which to this writer is absurd, as the film is pure exploitation given a high polish. The ‘boys’ mention Quentin Tarantino once, twice, and then again, and eventually admit that this is indeed one of the key amoral / immoral cinematic shockers that raised Tarantino’s blood pressure.
The party commentary hasn’t anything new to add to the controversy about a possible longer and more violent edit for Dark of the Sun. There’s not exactly a crying need for that, but I can’t say I’m not incurious: this existing version has a very suspicious cut during a murder scene by bayonet in a truck. I’ve only seen one still that depicts a nun being attacked, but unsubstantiated claims elsewhere include awful-sounding atrocities at every opportunity. Sorry to disappoint action fans, but if I passed uncut original versions of Dark of the Sun and The Magnificent Ambersons while running out of a burning building, Jack Cardiff’s film would not be rescued first.
Overseas censorship for American movies often kept sexy material while taking out violent shots. I once saw a copy of The Wild Bunch that had been censored for Australia, and was shocked to see how much film had been removed — practically every shot not suitable for TV’s The Roy Rogers Show. Back in 2011, correspondent Stefan Andersson wrote in to report the Swedish censors’ reaction to Dark of the Sun censorship in Sweden.
Sweden twice banned the film outright, and released for the first time in 1973, okayed for ’15 and older’ viewers in a version a full four minutes shorter. Removed from “Last Train from Katanga” were
– The killing of the children
– The Henlein/Curry fight, chiefly chainsaw shots
– The Simba vs. train crew battle, chiefly graphic closeups
– Shots of corpses at train ambush, and the man dragged behind a motorcycle.
– The second Heinlein/Curry fight in the river, and the murder of Henlein
It’s difficult to think of the movie being watchable with all that material removed. The Wild Bunch was incoherent, like a document with 30% of the text redacted.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dark of the Sun
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, new audio commentary with Trailer From Hell gurus Josh Olson and Larry Karazewski, Brian Sauer and Elric D. Kane.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 10, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson