Monday, March 6, 2017

Dark of the Sun: Mercenaries with Mixed Motives

Rod Taylor as a mercenary.
This 1968 Rod Taylor action picture can count Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino among its admirers. That's pretty good for what Variety described at the time as "a raw adventure yarn with some glib philosophizing."

Taylor plays Curry, a mercenary who has accepted $50,000 to rescue some people--and $50 million in diamonds--from a town in northern Congo that's under threat of an attack from the rebel Simbas. Curry and his Congo-born crony, Ruffo (Jim Brown), must complete their mission in three days. They recruit 40 Congolese soldiers, an alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More), and an ex-Nazi German officer named Heinlein (Peter Carsten).

Jim Brown as Ruffo.
Their journey, via an old steam train, is fraught with perils from the outset. The cavalcade is attacked by a United Nations peacekeeping plane. Curry and Heinlein, who dislike each other immensely, almost fight to the death. And Curry and Ruffo's "secret" mission seems to be common knowledge to everyone they meet. Worst of all, though, they arrive at their destination three hours early and have to wait until a safe's timelock opens so they can get the diamonds. Meanwhile, an army of ruthless Simbas are fast approaching the town.

Yvette Mimieux has a small role, reteaming
her with her Time Machine co-star.
This last plot point turns into an action-packed sequence in which Ruffo and Heinlein hold off the enemy as Curry boards the train at the last second with the diamonds. Unfortunately, their escape is short-lived when an explosion disconnects the caboose from the rest of the train, sending the train car --along with its screaming passengers and the precious stones--backwards into the hands of the enemy. In the film's most harrowing scene, Curry and Ruffo return to the captured town to retrieve the diamonds. Ruffo, posing as a Simba, carries Curry like a trophy on his back as they navigate through burning streets where innocent people are being tortured and killed.

This scene, plus a brutal fight at the climax, has earned Dark of the Sun a reputation as a grim, violent film. To be sure, the atrocities, which are implied more than they are shown, are not for squeamish viewers. There was no rating system when the film was released, but it was subsequently given a PG rating in 1973 (there was no PG-13 at the time). Director Jack Cardiff cut several gruesome scenes in order to secure the film's release.

Cardiff is best known as one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema, having photographed Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The African Queen (1951). He only directed 13 feature films, including two 1960s adventures with Rod Taylor: Dark of the Sun and the tongue-in-cheek The Liquidator (1965). Surprisingly, there's nothing visually striking about Dark of the Sun, although Cardiff makes one believe the film takes place in Africa (in reality, the locations were the Caribbeans and a British studio). He also handles the impressive action scenes with aplomb.

Curry and Ruffo discuss what makes them tick.
Still, it's that "glib philosophizing" that separates Dark of the Sun from other action films of the same period. In between the fight scenes, Curry and Ruffo debate their motives for what they do. At the outset, Curry makes it clear that he's a "paid man doing a dirty job" whereas Ruffo wants to maintain the freedoms his country has only recently earned. Driven by his friendship with Ruffo, Curry evolves as the film progresses--as evidenced by his decision to ultimately pay for his crimes. And yet, one can't help but think that Curry doesn't regret his violent actions...that he is still a mercenary at heart. Perhaps, it's his desire to reflect his friend's honor that drives his moral actions.

Dark of the Sun provides Jim Brown with one of his best roles as Ruffo. The former football great was typically typecast as macho men of action (e.g., Ice Station Zebra, Slaughter). But he brings sensitivity and intelligence to Ruffo, while still looking comfortable with an automatic weapon in his hand. He also gets to deliver the film's best-known line of dialogue, stating that he came from a tribe that believed: "If you eat the heart and brain of your enemy, his strength and wisdom will be added to your own."

Surprisingly, that sums up Dark of the Sun pretty well: It's a violent adventure film with more heart and a little more intelligence than you might expect.

This review is part of Rod Taylor Week at the Cafe, our week-long tribute to the Australian actor. Click here to read more reviews of his films.


  1. Darn. I'm torn. I'm one of the squeamish sort, but you have me intrigued.

  2. I do love me some Rod Taylor. This one is still on my to watch list. Your review has made me even more eager to see it. Maddy

  3. There certainly was a ratings system when the picture was released. It was an x cert ion Britain and R in america.