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.