Dark of the Sun, aka The Mercenaries (1968)

Director: Jack Cardiff

By Roderick Heath

Cinematography is a discipline that demands both technical and aesthetic skill, and seems to arm its practitioners with an understanding of all aspects of filmmaking. Yet the paucity of film photographers who start and sustain coherent directing careers has often been perplexing to cinema fans. Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) and Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), moved into directing his own movies in the late ’50s. After an early hit with his prestige adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1960), Cardiff pursued one of the strangest oeuvres imaginable, including the inert My Geisha (1962); the high-camp historical action flick The Long Ships (1964); the flavourful Sean O’Casey biopic Young Cassidy (1965), which he finished after John Ford fell ill; the sub-Bond action thriller The Liquidator (1966); and the early body-horror genre entry The Mutations (1974).

Dark of the Sun was half of a 1968 Cardiff one-two punch, along with his deliriously trippy adaptation of the legendary, racy novel The Girl on the Motorcycle (1968). Dark of the Sun is the sort of perfervid pulp classic that fulfils a cinephile’s fantasies about what such a film should look and sound like, evoking Sam Fuller and Delmer Daves in their capacity to boil complex themes down to dynamic examples, and say, in this unrestrained quality, things rather deeper and darker than a more prestigious, sober film could manage. The air of frantic innovation and hyperventilating cultural catch-up the late ’60s zeitgeist stoked in even the most conservative filmmakers left behind an epoch that’s still something of a wonderland of semicharted oddities like this.

Dark of the Sun, based on a novel by Wilbur Smith, is a post-Conradian, post-colonial fantasia looking at the havoc wreaked by imperialism and its sudden, disingenuous withdrawal of responsibility, coupled with the eruptive forces of cultures left poised between ancient and modern worlds: it’s the directly engaged genre cinema riposte to the rhetorical remove of Week-End (1967). Or, as Ruffo (Jim Brown), one of the film’s heroes, puts it in a fascinating moment as he grills his friend Curry (Rod Taylor), “watching the natives in their colourful puberty rites.” Ruffo is a Congolese renaissance man and perpetual comrade in arms to the truculent, but fundamentally decent Curry who is called in at the movie’s outset to pull off a tricky, two-faced rescue mission deep in the Congo’s hinterland. Like Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966), Dark of the Sun is an African-set adventure film that evokes the chaos and violence that has so often afflicted the continent and depicts overt warfare between black and white protagonists, but sustains a questioning approach to such conflict. White antiheroes find themselves paying the price for the blunders and cruelties of official policy, and African characters’ capacity for cruelty and humanity are merely versions of everybody else’s. The Simbas—marauding, crazed forces of destruction in the film—are not revolutionaries or nationalists, but drug-crazed loonies who represent the festering after the scab of colonialism has been torn off, whilst the wan claim to European moral authority is squarely represented by former Nazi Henlein (Peter Carsten). The film is hardly politically correct, and yet it is, in a funny way, fair-minded.

The setting is the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Curry and Ruffo are hired by the unnervingly smooth inheritor of the young country, President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), who’s moved into the mansion he’s admired “since I was a boy.” To prop up his government and fight off the Simbas, Ubi has made a deal with a Belgian mining company to retrieve $50 million worth of diamonds still locked in a vault in Port Reprieve, a town cut off by UN peacekeepers. Curry and Ruffo are given three days and promised a $50,000 payday if they retrieve the diamond. They secure a train and begin putting together a team, relying squarely on Henlein, who commands a force of regular Congo army soldiers for whom he has general contempt; Henlein, menacingly, has not abandoned his fondness for blunt final solutions to complex humanitarian problems and still wearsa swastika badge from his WWII days. The team also takes on the local-born Surrier (Olivier Despax), the good-natured Kataki (Bloke Modisane, a South African writer and activist in real life), and alcoholic Dr. Wreid (Kenneth More). Early in the mission, Surrier’s loss of nerve contributes to the loss of life when the train is attacked by a UN fighter plane. Passing a large plantation house belonging to a company agent, they only rescue the panicky, dishevelled refugee Claire (Yvette Mimieux), who rambles on frantically about the agent’s fate at the hands of the Simbas and demands to know why the rescue took so long.

Later, when the train stops and Curry and Ruffo encounter two orphaned children, Henlein promptly shoots the pair because he thinks they might be spies for some unseen enemy. Lethally charged glares of rage intensify as Curry discourages Henlein’s attentiveness to Claire, and this enmity soon evolves into a balls-and-all fight. Henlein almost cuts Curry up with a chainsaw and Curry almost crushes Henlein’s head under the train engine’s wheels before Ruffo intervenes. When the train finally makes it to Port Reprieve, they learn from Bussier (André Morell), the local agent for the mining companies, that the diamonds are locked in a time vault. The team has to wait three nail-biting hours with the train packed to the brim with refugees for the lock to open, as the Simbas draw ever closer. The safe opens, and the diamonds are retrieved just as the Simbas pour into town. The train trundles laboriously away as the soldiers shoot their way through the marauders, only for a mortar bomb to sever the rear car from the train and send it rolling with its load of refugees, including Bussier and his wife (Monique Lucas), back into the hands of the Simbas.

What lends Dark of the Sun its genuine punch is the hysterical instability it radiates and the confrontational zest of its story, far superior to modern equivalents like Black Hawk Down (2001) and Blood Diamond (2006) in offering up characters who are avatars of such chaotic and cruel times. The title, as well as offering an obvious thematic inversion, invokes the film’s peculiar visual palate, filled with sunlight so bright that the landscape is drained of primary hues, and the frames fulminate with a scorched intensity. Dark of the Sun pulsates with stylistic bravura, from Jacques Loussier’s nervy score to the slash-and-burn editing style and salt-lick screenplay. The film’s opening captures a world in transit, refugees of all colours and states crowding the retaining fences as they wait for planes out of the country.

Curry and Ruffo disembark and immediately have a charged skirmish of wills with UN soldiers who know very well the corrosive effect foreign mercenaries are having in the country. Ruffo discounts himself from a share in Ubi’s paycheque because of his personal stake in the country’s affairs, but he’s treated like an interloper by Ubi and referred to as a “big ape” by a Western journalist, unaware Ubi is a former USC student who speaks four languages. The journalist attempts to reclaim the moral high ground in grilling Curry, answered with, “I don’t like fat hacks who sit on their butts in bars waiting for trouble to happen so they can get it wrong when they write about it.”

Dark of the Sun is an entry in a specifically late ’60s branch of the action film, the “dirty bastards on a dirty-bastard mission” tale, inaugurated by The Guns of Navarone (1961) and carried to extremes by the likes of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965), and Brooks’ The Professionals (1967). One distinction of Cardiff’s film is that the then-contemporary sociopolitical milieu is engaged more specifically, and the meaning of the heroes’ stooping to obscene violence is pillaged with a genuine urgency. The film’s portrait of a violent epoch is all-encompassing, taking the essential theme of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—modern “civilisation” finding its primal antecedent in the Congo jungles and becoming poisoned by confronting the truth that hardly anything in the human soul has really changed—and twisting it to chronicle the violent evolution of the new nation as contrasted with the devolution of the old. “I was forced to come down from the tree,” Ruffo states bluntly, turning racist quips back on themselves, “and no force on earth is going to make me go up again.”

Several moments in the film resemble an obvious antecedent, Stagecoach (1939), only to deliberately desecrate them: Wreid, like Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone, is pressed into service in spite of being shickered to help with birthing a baby, only instead of heroic resurgence, he and the rest of the patients he takes on are massacred. Also, much like John Carradine’s Hatfield prepares to do the gentlemanly thing and shoot Louise Platt before capture by marauders, but is prevented from doing so by both his own death and the timely arrival of the cavalry, Bussier goes through with killing his wife before the Simbas capture them: his own body is later found sprawled amidst dozens of other massacred refugees like so much refuse.

Dark of the Sun’s overripe, still-potent nastiness is consistently bracing and surprising, and the action scenes, when they come, are brutal and thrilling. Cardiff’s terrific camera work, with an assist from Edward Scaife, is restless and urgent, rendered as a near-constant surge in physical movement. Pregnant scenes are charged with tension, like the interminable wait Curry, Claire, and Bussier maintain outside the diamond vault as the sound of battle begins to drum outside. Early in the film, Cardiff proffers a sequence of the mercenary team assembling their battle train that comprises a blend of silent film and ’30s and ’40s montage style, full of silhouetted shots and dizzying Dutch angles. The film’s central set piece, the massacre in Port Reprieve and Curry and Ruffo’s attempt to improvise an escape and retrieve the diamonds from the Simba leader Col. Moses (Danny Daniels), is a bloodcurdling survey of cruelty, pansexual abuse, and generally gleeful shredding of civilised norms; a woman is repeatedly hurled in the air on a sheet as if it’s a party as a prelude to gang rape, a captive is dragged behind a motorcycle, another has his face burnt off by a torch; one man tries to rape a nun from the hospital, only for her to drag him over a balcony to their death. Surrier, captured during the battle, is tortured by Moses and brutally beaten by men who know him as the personal representative of the colonialist experience, even though he’s the one white character in the film who expresses a genuine love for the country. Like the early village torture scene in The Naked Prey, it seems less a vision of tribal brutality than an attempt to invoke the absolute limits of rancid depravity and chaos within the limits of a mainstream feature film of its era, a moment of complete dissolution into anarchy caused by the complete incoherence of a society. Curry and Ruffo use an old ruse: Ruffo pretends to be one of the Simbas, carrying Curry into the hotel where Moses has set up headquarters, and they stage a brilliant coup of revenge as they rain death on the Simbas, and Surrier bear-hugs Moses and kills them both with a grenade.

Like most great melodramas, Dark of the Sun has, in between the chainsaws duels and mass rape scenes, a philosophical aspect to it that refuses reduction to window dressing, but instead becomes crucial to story and thrills. The constant flow of pulpy action, particularly in the fights between Curry and Henlein, predict the hard-charging, gritty style of the Indiana Jones films if the Jones films had embraced moral ambiguity and a far more alarming immediacy in terms of real-world violence. Curry and Ruffo have distinctive personal traits and perspectives that define them, and their conversations encapsulate their differing place in a violent world from which they both make their living. Curry’s affectation of professional disinterest masks a powerful, easily stoked fury when faced with immediate brutality and inhumanity, whereas Ruffo’s weightier conscientiousness regarding differing versions of tribal savagery (e.g., those of his parents and that of Henlein) is cooler in the long run. Soul-searching is an inevitable by-product of the human behaviour displayed throughout the film.

The film introduces Claire as a nominal love interest for Curry, but once she recovers from her initial hysteria, she retains a self-sufficient quality that stands apart from the bromance of Curry and Ruffo; of course, she brings out the potential bestial instinct in Henlein when the time comes. Mimieux, a pretty, colourless starlet early in her career who appeared with Taylor in The Time Machine (1960) probably gives her best performance, even if she somehow gets hold of some remarkably resilient white slacks during the course of the film. Cardiff worked three times with Taylor, and he, Brown, and Carsten practically ooze testosterone and physical vigour throughout, a vigour that is constantly tested with some demanding stunt work. Brown wasn’t the most expressive actor on the block, and yet he had, in addition to his rock-solid physicality, a thoughtful quality that is well utilised in this film. He often played in this phase of his career black martyr figures whose tinge of the revolutionary only serves to inspire white characters to action; to an extent his role’s the same here, except that, as Curry suspects early on, Ruffo, as the man who actually knows what’s going on in the country and what he’s doing there, has an ethical authority and solidity of purpose that is the linchpin of the enterprise.

When Henlein murders Ruffo, taking an opportunity to try and abscond with the diamonds when Curry is away, the film’s moral centrifuge flies apart, and so does Curry’s character. He chases down Henlein, and in a dizzyingly staged action sequence that broaches the limits of pathological rage, the pair wrestles whilst dangling from vines and struggling in river water, until, in an inspired perversion of traditional heroism, Curry first disables Henlein, breaking his arm and almost drowning him, before stabbing him to death. It’s the traditional action-revenge finale played as humanistic Passion Play, taking Curry right to the brink of madness and stripping his act of any nobility or even backwoods justice. He squats over the river water to wash his face, evoking the desolate state of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). This is witnessed by Kataki, who, utterly revolted, refuses to obey Curry, and berates him for surrendering so easily to the savagery they’re supposed to be trying to escape. The film’s very conclusion, with Curry, after a boding delay, handing himself over to Kataki’s custody to be tried for murder, is too neat a coda considering the rawness of what’s preceded it, but the crucial image of Kataki saluting Curry, as both men live up to Ruffo’s creed and reestablish the basis of civilisation on a level of equality nonetheless retains an unexpected pathos. Of course, Dark of the Sun is no essay or deep tract, but that’s its final strength: like its heroes, it bashes its way through and gets things done.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    25th/01/2012 to 5:56 pm

    This one is scheduled to record on my DVR tomorrow night and I’m looking forward to it. Caught The Liquidator last week and it wasn’t bad; Cardiff and Rod Taylor really seemed to click together — and I’m also recording Young Cassidy to confirm that.

  • Rod spoke:
    25th/01/2012 to 8:02 pm

    Young Cassidy is quite good, although it visibly changes gears from Fordian “drink-and-playful-fisticuffs nostalgia” to “young writer at odds with his society drama a la Sons and Lovers“. Unarguably, Cardiff and Taylor seemed to have an affinity; possibly Cardiff appreciated Taylor more than other directors, and Taylor was a punchy presence for Cardiff to get behind.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/01/2012 to 3:57 pm

    I’ve never seen this film, but I still much enjoyed reading this mighty piece of film scholarship, especially since I still haven’t forgotten the excellent documentary on Jack Cardiff that appeared in theatres in 2010. I was aware of this film from the sections on Cardiff’s directing, and well knew his work was unpredictable and uneven since his single big success with SONS AND LOVERS. This definitely brings to mind ZULU and THE NAKED PREY, but you already acknowledged that. And it would seem to be a perfect film for Cardiff the cinematographer.

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/01/2012 to 7:01 pm

    Hi Sam. Definitely try and catch this some time, as it’s the sort of film that really, really wants to be watched, not have scholarly exegeses written about it. Something I didn’t mention in the review although it is relevant to its recent attention is that it was a significant influence on Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino even uses Lussier’s music in his film.

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