Monday, March 14, 2011

If Somebody Pays You

Now that I’ve experienced it in a theater, as far as I’m concerned Jack Cardiff’s 1968 mercenary epic DARK OF THE SUN should be one of those sixties widescreen action extravaganzas that everyone automatically knows of, even if they haven’t seen it themselves. The title should just be part of the vernacular, like how people are aware of the names THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN if not the actual films. However the film did when it was first released it’s pretty clear that, as happens sometimes, it’s fallen through the cracks somehow, not playing forever on Sunday afternoon TV like a few of those other films and not even easy to find on video. But clearly some people out there are fans (“One of Rod Taylor’s best films.” – Maltin) and one of them is definitely Quentin Tarantino who along with inserting a few score tracks into INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS even cast star Rod Taylor in a cameo as Winston Churchill. Tarantino has now also screened the film as part of his ongoing festival at the New Beverly Cinema and with the print flown in from England (which bore the alternate title THE MERCENARIES) this was definitely a valuable opportunity since the film probably isn’t seen much anymore outside of the occasional TCM airing when they do a “Rod Taylor Day” or something. Exciting, full-bodied, surprisingly ruthless and continually gripping, it transcends the stodgy feel that certain other action epics of the period sometimes seem to have when viewed today and its excitement holds throughout. Some movies of this kind—scratch that, most of them—are a boy’s adventure. DARK OF THE SUN is a man’s adventure, every step of the way, and it’s a thrill to see now.

Professional mercenary Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor) arrives in the Congo and is hired by the President of the country (Calvin Lockhart, whose many credits include Lynch’s WILD AT HEART) to use a train to rescue the colonial residents of a far off mining town which is in danger of being attacked by rebel Simbas as well as retrieve a batch of diamonds worth millions of dollars from the town vault, diamonds that the President needs badly within three days. Among the men he chooses to bring with him are close friend and colleague Ruffo (Jim Brown), who was raised on the Congo but went to school in the U.S., as well as alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) who he convinces to come with the promise of a case of scotch as payment. Among the others he hires on also includes the German Heinlein (Peter Carsten) who has no problem letting people know of his Nazi past. Numerous tensions quickly rise on the train ride to the town including the rescue of beautiful widow Claire (Yvette Mimieux) but it’s nothing compared to what awaits them when they finally reach their destination.

They don’t make movies like DARK OF THE SUN anymore but, frankly, I kind of doubt they made them all that often even then. To compare it with something like the previous year’s THE DIRTY DOZEN—also released by MGM, also featuring Jim Brown—that film plays as sort of a giant comic book (an amazing comic book, just so you don’t think I’m speaking ill of THE DIRTY DOZEN) but DARK OF THE SUN comes off as completely adult and gripping. Set right in the middle of a precarious geopolitical situation it depicts what’s occurring with the utmost seriousness, fully aware of the hypocrisy of those in charge and the gravity of it all makes things that much more dangerous. Essentially tossing us into this environment without explaining things too much, not a minute is wasted right from the start. Taylor and Brown are introduced, given their instructions, they discuss it for a few minutes, then off they go and while it’s essentially a men-on-a-mission movie (and partly a train movie too, which for someone like me who loves train movies feels like an added bonus, with some pretty cool footage of setting up the various cars as they prepare to leave) with danger around every turn almost as soon as they leave, since we’re dealing with mercenaries who are mainly working for profit--“doing anything for money”--and not soldiers forever loyal to their flag, the lack of immediate nobility lends it all an extra edge with only Jim Brown’s Ruffo who has a reason for his actions based on his own personal awareness of what’s going on. The action kicks off almost immediately with a full-fledged aerial assault taking place even before the half-hour mark, yet it somehow manages to maintain the balance of acknowledging the underlying seriousness of its story while never being self-serious about its own importance—it’s an action movie, after all, and it knows how to maintain the right amount of pulp flavor even with the gravity of what’s being shown. The tension also comes from unexpected places like the speed bump of why, once they arrive at the village, they can’t simply leave right away. Those diamonds that they’ve come to recover are essentially the McGuffin, of course, but while they play a key role in where the plot goes, particularly during the action of the second half as they need to be retrieved from the villainous rebels, ultimately it’s how the characters react to certain events that matter more than anything.

Director Jack Cardiff is best remembered as a cinematographer—his lengthy D.P. credits include things like THE RED SHOES, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, THE VIKINGS and even RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II but while I’m nowhere near as familiar with his directorial work based on this film his style offers an undeniable command of the frame in every shot, a feel of stripping down the story to its essentials yet somehow paying equal attention to the characters and how to stage everything—because the characters have become so vivid, leading to some genuinely shocking developments, the viciousness of some of the action scenes are that much more potent as a result. The story (screenplay by Quentin Werty and Adrien Spies from the novel by Wilbur Smith) keeps us continually aware of the background of what’s going on yet at a very lean 100 minutes it’s surprisingly tight, especially considering how lengthy some of these films made at the time were. And the film features some truly exciting action that can be unrelenting--when things begin to go bad it’s genuinely startling just how much the shit really is hitting the fan. Something horrific occurs just past the half-hour mark (inspiring Rod Taylor’s character to deliver the memorable line, “Put the swastika back on”) that is shocking for the time and DARK OF THE SUN is never a movie that pulls its punches—the action is thrilling but never for the sake of just being flashy. One fight near the end is particularly brutal, with Rod Taylor at one point in a jeep pursuing someone across a lake but instead of just running them down, he leaps out of the moving vehicle to physically pummel that person himself as brutally as is possible, the sort of ferociously harsh feel that permeates every beat of the whole film.

And befitting something that is directed by the man who shot THE RED SHOES it’s beautiful to look at as well with a remarkable feel to the location work (actually filmed in Jamaica) and while some of the drawbacks of the era like the occasional use of rear screen projection are evident even the day for night photography has an evocative moodiness to it, along with a score by Jacques Loussier that is fantastically propulsive while also keeping a steady rhythm to its infectiously listenable main theme (which turns up on the BASTERDS soundtrack album), appropriate considering how much of it is set on a train. With attention paid to nasty details like the rate dead bodies need to be tossed off at certain intervals the tossed-off cynicism of the characters is palpable but so is their humanity--Taylor and Brown in particular have a relaxed chemistry that totally sells their friendship as well as their differences, making certain turns in the story all the more effective in the end. Like what often happens in these movies the one woman involved feels somewhat shoehorned in, meaning that Mimieux’s presence ultimately doesn’t matter all that much so any hint of attraction between her and Taylor feels mostly limited to a few glances even if it is kind of cool to see a TIME MACHINE reunion--some existing stills seem to indicate more of a romance for the two, unless of course those were just for publicity reasons. But elements like how a key character departs the main narrative sooner than you would expect makes what occurs in the plot seem natural, not just haphazard story construction, so almost all of it works. DARK OF THE SUN is exciting, nasty and compelling. Oh yeah, there’s a fight scene involving a chainsaw, too. A pretty damn awesome one. It’s a dynamite film.

Rod Taylor is maybe best remembered today for his roles in films like THE TIME MACHINE and THE BIRDS (his recounting how Tarantino convinced him to be in BASTERDS on that film’s DVD is truly touching) Taylor but he’s fantastic here, physically imposing and always forceful in his presence, with the right amount of awareness of what he’s doing. Jim Brown is cool—hell, Jim Brown is always cool (adding to this, the New Beverly ran a bunch of trailers for Jim Brown films before the film) but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him so genuine in a movie, playing someone who forces his friend to wonder about what really matters in this harsh environment. Yvette Mimieux (the last name taken by Shoshanna Dreyfus in BASTERDS incidentally, furthering that connection) is given a memorable introduction when she’s seen from a distance fleeing danger through a pair of binoculars but after the anguish of her first moments (to my ears it sounds like her big speech is scored with the piece used during the “Shoshanna has a collection of over 350 nitrate film prints” moment in BASTERDS) doesn’t have all that much to do beyond just going along for the ride and ultimately threatened by the evil ex-Nazi near the end. Her gentle nature still makes it nice to have her around, though, an interesting contrast to all the unbridled testosterone at hand. Among the supporting cast Kenneth More is particularly good as the doctor who badly needs his booze and Peter Carsten has the right ice cold intensity as the nasty Heinlein, although oddly there’s a stretch during the first hour where he appears to have been dubbed by Paul Frees.

Brown’s character at one point recalls the primitive tribal beliefs of his past that he grew up with, based on ignorance, that spoke of eating the hearts of ones enemy and it is this fear of allowing that sort of brutality to take one over that the conflict in the film is really about, more than the diamonds that are being recovered or the mission on the train. Although, it should be said how phenomenally well done much of that action is and DARK OF THE SUN always maintains the balance of its excitement with the awareness of what the characters really need to face up to. Everyone else I talked to at the New Beverly was also blown away by the film and if it had played more than two days I probably would have gone back again, bringing more people to see it if I could have. For reasons too dull to go into I wound up not staying for the second film of the night, another Rod Taylor war movie called HELL RIVER (apparently with trailers of films starring him to balance out the ones with Jim Brown shown earlier) but DARK OF THE SUN was so completely satisfying for the night that I have no complaints. If it were as well known as the titles that were actually named it actually would have been right at home in Clarence Worley’s “I’ll tell you what a movie is” speech to Lee Donowitz in TRUE ROMANCE. Because damn right it’s a movie. A really good one. Word has it that the Warner Archive may be releasing it soon so hopefully more people out there will get a chance to see for themselves. One thing that nights of seeing a movie like this at the New Beverly can remind you of is how many others that are still out there, that have yet to be seen, to be discovered, to be experienced for the first time and hopefully on 35mm. Because when you find one this good, getting to experience it with people who feel the same way, it really can be a beautiful thing. So let’s keep this train moving.


le0pard13 said...

Excellent review and coverage of the event, Mr. Peel. I've alway heard great things about this film, and was very sorry to have missed the showings at the New Bev. Hopefully as you said, Warners Archive will deliver this to disc -- though it's still pretty mystifying that something as good as this is denied a full bells and whistles studio release. Anyway, I would I have loved to have seen that Rod Taylor-administered beat down in the film. The ex-boxer Taylor was always underrated as an action star (he did many of own stunts). If you ever get a chance to see his legendary fist fight scene with William Smith in DARKER THAN AMBER you'll known exactly what I mean. Thanks for this.

Chaz Zachler said...

Yeah, this was the one I really wanted to see the most too (aside from the Shaw Brothers double bill and the Kill Bill thing). I actually just skimmed the review because I want the movie to be a surprise.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Good news--shortly after I posted this piece the Warner Archive tweeted that they would be releasing DARK SIDE OF THE SUN in June! Great to know that more people will get a chance to see it!

Marty McKee said...

Can't believe you skipped out on HELL RIVER. Adam West speaking with a German accent is one of the funniest things ever.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It partly had to do with my ride. But sometimes you see a film that is so good you just want it to stay in your head a little while longer and not see the second movie. This was one of those times.

Ned Merrill said...

I will throw in another plug for Taylor's later film DARKER THAN DARK OF THE SUN and DARKER THAN AMBER, Taylor puts in some amazingly physical performances, putting many better known cinema action men to shame.

One of the best things to come out of Bill Lustig's super-fun retrospectives the last two years at Anthology Film Archives, was the presence of a (rare) Rod Taylor film in each installment. In '09 we were treated to Roy Frumkes' personal, UNCUT 16mm print of DARKER THAN AMBER, featuring the much talked about bare-knuckled duel with legendary tough guy William Smith in all its glory. In '10, we had a 35mm print of DARK OF THE SUN / MERCENARIES (most likely the same one you had at the New Bev).

In an interview, Lustig mentioned that the negative to DARK OF THE SUN was not in good shape, contributing to its absence on DVD. I have a DVD-R that I burned from a TCM broadcast.

Interestingly, Cardiff returned to similar territory, as d.p., when he shot John Irvin's THE DOGS OF WAR.