May 3, 2020
Heroes for Hire, Killers for Life

Director: Jack Cardiff
Captain Bruce Curry – ROD TAYLOR
Sgt Ruffo – JIM BROWN
Captain Henline – PETER CARSTEN

“Put the Swastika back on,” growls Captain Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor) to one of the more cruel and sadistic members of his mercenary army. “You’ve earned it!”

Color me cautious. But isn’t enlisting the services of an ex-Nazi, well, not a particularly wise choice for a military mission?

Such a risky professional oversight is a brick within the multi-layered foundation of the bold and hyper-violent 1968 war thriller Dark of the Sun. On the surface, the film may look like just another big, dumb testosterone-laden action extravaganza. Its original poster alone illustrates a wild kaleidoscope of violent sequences, shirtless male muscular machismo, and other frenetic depictions of action cinema. Even its tagline barks a ferocity fitting for a soldier of fortune recruitment poster: “You don’t kill for women. You don’t kill for diamonds. You kill because you’re paid for it!”

Rest, assured, though, that Dark of the Sun is anything but a run-of-the-mill tough guy flick. Director Jack Cardiff takes the audience on a blood-soaked, yet character-enriched roller coaster ride set within the unique and oft-unused backdrop of central Africa. While the film does inevitably ramp up the heroics, gunfights, and explosive sequences, a great chunk of its running time is actually spent exploring its diverse cast of misfit characters. How often does an action movie actually emphasize the inner morality of the professional mercenary or lack thereof?

That’s the beauty of the so-called “guys on a mission” sub-genre of the Action film, which DotS proves to be a prime example. Rather than focusing on one or two heroes in the spotlight, the spotlight is on an entire team, allowing for multiple studies of diverse characters and personalities, which may or may not add an edge to the plot. Other, more popular examples of the “guys on a mission” flick include Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and its Western remake, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven; Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen; and many decades later, The Expendables trilogy.                

DotS was adapted from the novel of the same name originally written by British novelist Wilbur Smith, who specializes in manly tales of derring-do set in exotic locales. I have yet to read the film’s original source novel, but after many enthusiastic repeated viewings, I wholly intend to purchase a copy! The novel itself was loosely inspired by actual violent rebel uprisings that plagued the Congo during the early 1960s. Headlining the film’s cast is Australian tough-guy actor Rod Taylor as Captain Curry, the seasoned leader of the private mercenary battalion code-named “Striker Blue Force.” Taylor seemed right at home with this type of character: steely, two-fisted, and brutal when necessary, yet dashing and charming. Money was always Curry’s driving force, and judging by his hardened veteran demeanor, he always delivers the goods. Taylor was the quintessential vintage cinematic rogue with a disarming smile in one second, and a murderous snarl while gripping a combat knife in the other. NFL legend (and soon-to-be Blaxploitation icon) Jim Brown is Ruffo, Curry’s trusty second-in-command. Brown was both hot from the success of his breakout performance in The Dirty Dozen (released a year prior to this film), and recently retired from his professional football career. You can see the hunger in the young Brown’s eyes that he was eager to be a movie star. He nearly loses himself in the role of Ruffo, the Congolese-American soldier with the special vested interest in their newest mission.

Just what exactly is their mission, you ask? It’s a complicated one: both Curry and Ruffo are ostensibly hired to lead Striker Blue Force by train deep into the Congo jungle to liberate a village of mostly European immigrants before the marauding Simba rebels destroy them all. It sounds like a standard rescue operation, until their client, Congolese President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart) reveals another, more ulterior motive: they must recover a hidden fortune in diamonds - meant to help stabilize the country’s economy - locked in the village’s time-locked vault. The Force must accomplish this two-fold mission in three days - as President Ubi declares - “To keep the Congo alive!”

Rounding out the rest of Striker Blue Force is nervous rookie soldier Surier; alcoholic British doctor Wreid (Kenneth More); loyal officer Kataki (noted South African writer and actor Bloke Modisane); and, most dangerous and volatile of all, former Nazi-turned mercenary Henlein (Peter Carsten). Most “guys on a mission” pictures will include that obligatory wild card character as a key team member. They give the story a much-needed edge if the primary villains aren’t enough to maintain the suspense (Telly Savalas’ unhinged convict “Maggot” from The Dirty Dozen also comes to mind). But Carsten’s Henlein is on a league all his own. The man belts out orders to the team’s African soldiers with an obvious air of “master race” superiority. He also has a gold Swastika proudly pinned to his lapel. Curry can barely contain his naked disgust for Henlein, yet grudgingly accepts the ex-Nazi’s leadership qualities which Ruffo suggests. Sure enough, Henlein succumbs to the temptation of escaping with the team’s objective of retrieving the diamonds and will take every drastic measure to get his evil hands on them.

Speaking of temptations, another object of insatiable desire that further complicates matters is Claire (the ever-wonderful Yvette Mimeux), the beautiful young innocent bystander rescued by the Force. Claire adds a delicate touch of humanity and grace amidst the chaos which surrounds them. Inevitably, she and Curry would fall for each other, adding another spark to Curry’s rivalry with Henlein. Only eight years before, Mimeux and Taylor worked together previously in the 1960 science fiction classic The Time Machine, and here they are, reunited to bring smiles of joy to cult film audiences the world over!

The team’s journey becomes nothing short of nightmarish, as expected. They encounter deadly obstacles such as enemy air strikes, Henlein’s increasingly violent tendencies, and the terrifying invading Simbas. Curry and Ruffo struggle to maintain the Force’s morale and to obtain their objectives. But success in achieving their mission becomes more and more uncertain especially when the Simbas come rolling from the jungle. The Simbas’ threatening presence is compounded by their swarming numbers and explosive proclivities to carnage. One particularly nasty sequence involves the Simbas gleefully torturing and murdering innocent hostages, and even implying off-screen rape to women and men alike. There’s no doubt in my mind that such outrageous scenes are what gives DotS its cinematic ahead-of-its-time notoriety among fans and critics alike.

All controversy aside, Dark of the Sun packs a considerable artistic wallop that is seldom seen in other similar, more conventional movies. It provides healthy doses of exciting heroics to stir up the action-loving crowd and shines considerable focus on the characters. Taylor and Brown’s chemistry is surprisingly warm and infectious. Their characters share a strong, almost-brotherly camaraderie as both men dwell on their personal attitudes towards the mission. Curry admits that his laser focus is on their paycheck, whereas Ruffo feels compelled to help his native countrymen remedy their ongoing economic strife. Pride in his roots burns within Ruffo, making him more than just the stereotypical black sidekick. Tension also erupts when distrust over who gets to hold the diamonds on the journey back home begins to brew. The audience may begin to dread if both Curry and Ruffo would come to blows over the precious minerals they were hired to appropriate.

There are very few so-called Action movies that bother to create strong, three-dimensional characters at least after the 1960s. Since the advent of the Herculean macho man of the late 70s to early 90s (e.g. of the Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis stripe), a majority of Action flicks are a mere spectacle and eye candy. Explosions, gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, cocky one-liners, and even the occasional scantily-clad sexy female were these movies’ selling points to get the butts of audiences from those bygone eras in seats. Don’t get me wrong; I too admittedly enjoy mindless action movies whenever I don’t have the inclination to think. Eventually, I grow bored with those by-the-numbers pictures and wind up yearning for a little more brain stimulation. And then I discovered Dark of the Sun, which offers more, much more. It contains elements of the “guys-on-a-mission”, war, character study, and heist thriller all rolled into one damn near perfect movie.

It’s solid proof that a thought-provoking manly film can actually exist.

See the original trailer below!

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May 3, 2020




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