I've been itching to see Dark of the Sun for a long time. Until its release on Warner Archives DVD-R last year, it's been pretty hard to track down. It has a reputation as a mean little action picture, and it didn't disappoint.
The movie takes place in the former Republic of Congo during the early days of the bloody Simba Rebellion. Rod Taylor stars as a hard-ass mercenary named Curry, hired by the government (backed by a powerful Belgian mining consortium) to lead a hand-picked strike team up 300 miles of Simba-held country and rescue the people stranded in Port Reprieve -- or more importantly for the government, the $50 million in diamonds held in the mining company's safe.
Curry's right-hand man is Ruffo, played by Jim Brown (in perhaps the best performance of his career). Unlike Curry, Ruffo fights for ideology, not money. The Congo is his country, and he wants to help put things right. Despite these differences, the two men are close friends, and we get the sense that they've been through many previous missions together.
Curry reluctantly brings the racist ex-Nazi Henlein (Peter Karsten), current commander of the Congalese military, onto his team, along with 20 of his best soldiers. He also lures an alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More) into his scheme with a case of Scotch.
Curry and his men quickly commandeer an old steam-powered train and head off on their mission. Along the way, they rescue a woman (Yvette Mimieux), the only survivor of a Simba raid on her family's plantation.
Crashing through a U.N. barrier, the rescue team speeds on to Port Reprieve, but not before tempers flare and Curry and Henlein throw down in a vicious chainsaw fight.
Alas, the final showdown between these two will have to wait until later. There are still people and diamonds to rescue, and the clock is ticking. Somehow word of their coming has been broadcast throughout the country, and the race is on to fulfill their mission before a platoon of Simba rebels converge on the little mining town...
Considering the time it was made, this is one violent film. When things go pear-shaped at the end, director Jack Cardiff goes about as far as the standards of the time allowed in showing the atrocities committed by the Simbas as they murder, rape, torture and pillage their way through the town.
The movie starts out with a jaunty air. The witty dialogue and interesting characters led to expectations of a cool, "impossible mission" sort-of romp, ala The Dirty Dozen. "Why isn't this movie more famous?" I kept asking myself.
But as the film went on, I quickly realized why it isn't better known: it's pretty nasty. The action is plentiful and fierce, but it's not glamorized, and the screenplay, by Quentin Werty and Adrian Spies, based loosely off a novel by Wilbur Smith, keeps events rooted in the messy politics of the era.
Rod Taylor is terrific in the lead. With his rugged face, brawny physicality and cynical demeanor, he's totally convincing as a soldier of fortune struggling to balance the harsh practicalities of his profession with his basic sense of decency. Taylor had some big hits in his career, like The Time Machine (also with Mimieux) and The Birds, but never quite became the major star he deserved to be. I've yet to see him give a duff performance. He's always dependable, particularly in a film like this, where he brings real acting chops to bear, on top of his usual expertise at handling action.
Yvette Mimieux is awfully pretty, but often comes across as slightly spacy and vacuous to me, no matter the role. She does have one nice scene here, later in the film, where she gets to show some real emotion. Overall, she's OK, but her growing attraction to Taylor isn't dealt with in any detail, and she ends up more of an ancillary, decorative character.
The real focus of the film is the relationship between Taylor and Jim Brown. After his football career, Brown went on to star in many action films, such as The Dirty Dozen, 100 Rifles, Ice Station Zebra and El Condor. Usually he just stands around glowering and looking tough, but here he's given more to do and really shines, creating an instantly likeable and principled character.
The supporting cast is very good across the board. Kenneth More (so wonderful as Father Brown on British TV a few years later) does subtle work as the drink-sodden doctor finally pushed to take a stand. I'm not as familiar with Peter Carsten, but he makes a strong impact as the brutish Henlein (occasionally dubbed by the instantly-recognizable Paul Frees). British character stalwarts Andre Morrell and (very briefly) Calvin Lockhart also appear.
Famed Technicolor cinematographer Jack Cardiff must have gotten along well with Rod Taylor, as he also directed him in The Liquidator and Young Cassidy (both in 1965). He proves to be a solid action director, and his practiced cameraman's eye makes for a very good-looking film.
It also boasts a memorable score by Jacques Loussier. Quentin Tarantino pilfered the catchy main theme for his own impossible mission film, Inglorious Basterds.
All in all, this is an extremely well-made movie, but it's not exactly fun Saturday matinee fare. Its violence and dark subject matter won't be everyone's cup of tea. But if you're looking for a tough adventure film that takes no prisoners, then Dark of the Sun is well worth a watch.
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