Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sands of the Kalahari: Fear Not the Baboons

These aren't Bette Davis eyes.
1965 was a banner year for well-made survivalist adventures. Two of the best-known examples of that subgenre--The Flight of the Phoenix and The Naked Prey--were released that year. A third representative, the lesser-know Sands of the Kalahari, hit theaters as well. It did not click with movie-goers nor critics (Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times wrote: "It is largely a question of who can take the Technicolored agony longer, the characters or the customers"). However, time has been kind to this sometimes brutal film and it has developed a cult reputation over the years.

Susannah York as the lone female.
The opening scenes closely mirror The Flight of the Phoenix with six passengers boarding a small cargo plane for Johannesburg after their commercial flight is delayed. The pilot accepts one final passenger even though he knows it puts the plane over its weight-carrying limit. During the flight, the aircraft encounters an enormous horde of locusts that clogs the engines and sends the plane crashing into the Kalahari desert. The pilots are killed, but the passengers escape before the plane bursts into flames.

A passenger called Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) emerges as the group's leader. He guides the others to a mountainous area with drinkable water, melons for food, and caves for protection. There is also a congress of baboons (yes, I looked that up) nearby, but the monkeys with the scary-looking teeth only express curiosity about their new neighbors. When Sturdevan leaves the group to seek out help, O'Brien (Stuart Whitman) assumes his role. He heartlessly kills the baboons, explaining that they are the group's competitors for food. However, it gradually becomes clear that O'Brien is an extreme survivalist who wants to get rid of more than just the baboons.

Baboons have sharp teeth!
I recently watched Sands of the Kalahari for the first time in probably two decades. I could have sworn the central premise pitted the passengers against the baboons. I was mistaken, though, for the baboons are not the film's villain; that would be O'Brien. Indeed, although the baboons play a key role in the climax, their primary purpose is to provide an analogy. In describing an article on baboons, a passenger named Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) notes: "There is a leader, a king, an absolute monarch. He gets first choice to all the food and the females. And he can only be deposed if he is defeated by a younger and stronger challenger." Bondrachai could just as well have been talking about the his fellow survivors. The only difference is that O'Brien doesn't have to fight his biggest rival, Sturdevan. He just bides his time until Sturdevan  leaves, then O'Brien takes over as the monarch of the group.

In a film with a small ensemble cast, well-drawn characters and strong performances can make all the difference. Fortunately, Sands of the Kalahari features solid veteran British performers such as Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, Susannah York, and Davenport. They bring their characters to life even though writer-director Cy Endfield fails to flesh their parts out as as skillfully as the survivors in The Flight of the Phoenix.
Director Enfield's numerous overhead shots suggest the baboons
are watching the humans.
Susannah York and Stuart Whitman face the toughest acting challenges. York plays Grace Munden, the lone female character, who displays a lack of moral strength until late in the film. Early on, she attaches herself to O'Brien, either because she wants the brutal hunter's protection or is attracted to his animal quality (or both). As a result, it's hard to empathize with Grace, even though it's conceivable that she has simply recognized her weaknesses and taken the most logical actions required for her survival.

Stuart Whitman as O'Brien.
Whitman initially seems an odd choice for O'Brien (allegedly, Baker, who also co-produced, wanted his friend Richard Burton to play the role). Still, he does an effective job of lurking in the shadows until it's time for O'Brien to take control of the group. Whitman may overplay his part at times, but O'Brien is clearly intended to be a egocentric ruler who believes he has found his destiny.

I'm not surprised that Sands of the Kalahari was a boxoffice failure. The plot borders on grim and brutal at times and it lacks the feel-good ending of Flight of the Phoenix. However, it's a fascinating film that keeps viewers continually guessing what's going to happen next. And when the baboons finally make their presence known in the film's climax, let's just say that it's a confrontation that you won't soon forget.

7 comments:

  1. I've always liked this movie. Stuart Whitman is terrific as the alpha male. Another good movie from the same time period is "Dark of the Sun" with Rod Taylor. TCM recently showed it.

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  2. Fantastic movie, that seems to be very hard to find today.

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  3. Extremely underrated film. I first saw this back in '65 and thought it was a great adventure film at the time. When the blu-Ray came out a while back I picked it up and watched it for the first time in years. Still holds up well, though I never cared much for Stuart Whitman as an actor.

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  4. Any film with an ending like this one has has to be put on the gentleman adventurer's top 20! Good stuff, and god review, too.

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

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  5. This is a fabulous film. Susannah York was gorgeous and I love the ending.

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  6. A Congress of Baboons.....now that's just priceless, laughing my socks off.

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  7. I agree with all that the ending packs a wallop. I always liked Stuart Whitman well enough, but I finally saw him in THE MARK last year and he was excellent. He was also quite good in SIGNPOST TO MURDER.

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