There haven’t been too many movies based around the modern mercenary trade – The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, The Last Grenade and, if you stretch the point, the recent Blood Diamond are the ones that spring to mind. There are, of course, lots of examples of mercenary characters in westerns but that’s not really the same thing. Of those mentioned, The Wild Geese isn’t much more than a Boy’s Own adventure, albeit a fairly enjoyable one. The Dogs of War spends way too much time on behind the scenes machinations and The Last Grenade is just not a very good film. Jack Cardiff’s 1968 production Dark of the Sun is a cut above all these and is arguably the best movie in this small sub-genre.
The story is set during the Simba revolt in the Congo in the mid 60s, when that vast, former Belgian colony was on the point of implosion. A mercenary group, under the command of Curry (Rod Taylor), are engaged to drive a train into the interior and evacuate the European inhabitants of an isolated mining town which is threatened by the advance of the Simba rebels. The reason this particular town is on the fast track for relief is because there happens to be a fortune in uncut diamonds waiting around for whoever arrives first. Curry, and comrade in arms Ruffo (Jim Brown), sets out with his hastily assembled group in the hope of beating the Simbas to the chase. Everything zips along at a good pace, packing in a chainsaw fight, a confrontation with the U.N. forces, and the rescue of a massacre survivor (Yvette Mimieux) before the train arrives at its destination. At this point the tension rises, as the diamonds are in a vault whose time lock won’t open for another three hours, and the rebels are inching ever closer.
Rod Taylor gives one of his best performances as the hard as nails soldier of fortune and there’s none of the phony posing so prevalent in more modern action heroes. Taylor seems genuinely tough and the climax, where he gives full rein to his outraged fury at the fate of his best friend, is powerful stuff indeed. Jim Brown was no great shakes as an actor but his calm, reasonable Ruffo provides an acceptable counterweight to the simmering Curry. Peter Carsten makes for a great villain as an unapologetic ex-Nazi, and there’s good support from the seasoned Kenneth More and Andre Morell. This is pretty much a man’s movie so there’s not a lot for Yvette Mimieux to do, but she does look sexy and appealing and that’s good enough for me.
If you’ve ever seen a movie photographed by Jack Cardiff you will know how effortlessly good everything looks. Although he is the director here, the movie remains visually pleasing and is only occasionally spoiled by some poor rear projection. The score by Jacques Loussier (I don’t believe I’ve heard anything else by him) is another major plus; it’s a jazzy, downbeat effort that enhances the mood of the picture perfectly. The source material was a novel of the same name by Wilbur Smith. Smith knocked out some good, tight action thrillers early in his career before sliding into the (probably more lucrative) field of the bloated, historical soap opera. I don’t know who provided the inspiration for Smith’s characters but I suspect he may have been thinking of Mike Hoare. Either way, I believe the film’s makers had one of Dublin’s less celebrated figures in mind – if you can get your hands on a copy of ‘Mad’ Mike’s own memoirs, Congo Mercenary, you ought to notice some parallels.
As far as I know, Dark of the Sun remains unavailable on DVD anywhere but there was some talk of Warner giving it a release in R1. It has turned up on TCM in the past but I would love to see it get a proper release – it’s a very good movie whose stock should rise if only it were more readily available.
EDIT January 2012 – The movie has now been given two official releases. The first is the Warner Archive MOD from the USA which I haven’t seen. It’s also been issued in Spain by Suevia, a company whose output is variable in quality. However, I’m pleased to say the Spanish disc is more than acceptable. It’s been transferred progressively in anamorphic scope and looks generally sharp. The colours are rich and there’s no problem with subs – the disc offers the option of French, Spanish or no subtitles on the English track. Extras are limited to the trailer. All in all, it’s a very satisfactory release.
9 thoughts on “Dark of the Sun”
This film has always struck me as ripe for rediscovery. One sequence, involving train carriages rolling back into the station is one of the most terrifying I’ve seen.
A brutal, cynical and tough-as-nails near masterpiece.
Nuts… I read through and get very excited only to discover that it is not available on DVD!
If you want modern mercenaries, why not check out the ultra-trashy ‘Commando Leopard’ with Lewis Collins and Klaus Kinski. ABUK have a superb DVD release with a fascinating bonus feature – 40 minutes of on-set footage including some wonderful candid shots of Kinski.
It is actually part of a small series of films, the first being the rather unoriginally titled ‘Codename WildGeese’, although the other entries are only available on DVD from Germany.
Thanks for the comments.
The scene with the carraige rolling back towards the waiting horde of Simbas is an unnerving one – it gives you that sliding feeling in your gut because you just know what the result is going to be.
Tim, sorry that you got your hopes up only to have them dashed; I know the feeling too well myself. I keep hoping Warners will come to their senses and finally put this movie out with a nice transfer. It has been mentioned in a couple of Warner/HTF chats but it still remains a no show. 😦
Since you mention it, I now remember seeing ‘Codename Wild Geese’ on a VHS rental over twenty years ago – I know it’s been a long time but I do recall thinking it was pretty poor stuff, and I had no idea that it formed part of a series.
I like this film quite a bit; I’d love to see it on DVD. Always makes me think of the story Quentin Tarantino told about Rod Taylor and Jim Brown, who supposedly didn’t get along at all, getting into a fight at a party at the Playboy mansion back in the day. Apparently Taylor, an ex-boxer, won out. Probably apocryphal, but it sounds so cool you wish it was true.
Dark of the Sun was probably the most violent movie of the late 60’s, except for Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”!
Both Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino show it every year at their film fest.
According to Scorcese, “It is one of his guilty pleasures!”
The movie is indeed outstanding on so many levels.
I think Rod Taylor is perfect for the role of Curry!
This movie is rough and gory for it’s time, and one gets the impression it was definately out to offend the cinema going public!
It was Jack Cardiffs third movie as director for Taylor, the previous being, Young Cassidy and The Liquidator.
This movie is available on DVD from EBay from time to time.
I have a copy on Video.
Make sure though you inquire that it is not an edited version.The full running time is around 105 minutes.
Great review of a Jack Cardiff gem, Colin. Though, I have to admit I remain a long-time fan of ‘The Dogs of War’. I bought the Warner Archive MOD disc of DotS last year when it came out and its a good one. It’s remastered with very good anamorphically-enhanced transfer, and includes a trailer. Yes, I’d love to see a full blown release with loads of extras it deserves (Rod Taylor and Jim Brown are still around for interviews and/or commentaries, in case anyone is interested), but the Warner Archive disc will do nicely for the moment. Thanks, my friend.
Thanks Michael. This is quite a different film from The Dogs of War; even though both deal with mercenaries in Africa, Dark of the Sun is more of a blood and guts adventure with much less emphasis on the planning and behind the scenes machinations.
I’ve bought a few Archive titles myself (in fact, my next piece will probably be on a movie available through the programme) but I’m still not a fan of the sales model. So where possible, I always try to source a copy of a movie that’s not MOD. The new Spanish disc from Suevia (judging from some screencaps I’ve seen) looks like it’s essentially the same transfer as the one used for the US Archive disc. Aside from the whole pressed/burnt disc issue, the Suevia release is priced very competitively.
Another one I saw back in the day at the Drive-In. One more for the re-watch list. Thanks for the reminder.
If there’s such a thing as a man’s film, then this is it. A masterpiece of toughness.