Dark of the Sun AKA Mercenaries (1968)
British cinematographer Jack Cardiff had an extremely distinguished career working with the like of Powell & Pressburger, Hitchcock and John Huston. As a director he received acclaim for Intent to Kill (1958), Web of Evidence (1959) and Sons and Lovers (1960). However his 1968 adaptation of Wilbur Smith's novel Dark of the Sun (also known as Mercenaries) is often overlooked. In some respects this gritty action movie may have been a little before its time with regard to both its politics and depiction of the Simba Rebellion of 1964-65. It still packs a punch forty eight years later.
Dark of the Sun is set during the Simba revolt when the Congo government recruited mercenaries to fight a Marxist insurgency. Rod Taylor and Jim Brown star as Captain Curry and Sergeant Ruffo, a pair of professional soldiers paid to retrieve a cash of diamonds. The story starts in a fairly formulaic fashion with the rag tag assortment of mercenaries being assembled, including racist ex-Nazi Henlein (Peter Carsten) and alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More). As they travel by train into the Congo interior, they rescue Claire (Yvette Mimieux), a white settler and victim of the Simba revolt. On reaching the diamond mine, they find that the vault has a time lock and must wait several hours. Tension increases as the insurgent’s approach, especially as they have a reputation for committing atrocities.
What makes Dark of the Sun different from this point onward is its exploration of the polarised politics of Africa and its uncharacteristically harsh and brutal depiction of the atrocities. By the standards of mainstream cinema of the time, this was considered a hard edged movie for a studio such as MGM/UA. There are scenes of the Simba's raping a Nun and a man being dragged by a motorbike whilst having petrol poured on him. Another victim has a burning torch thrust in his face. There is also an inference of male rape, which was far from common place in US cinema at the time. The film also has several brutal fights between Taylor and Carsten which are still quite strong.
However it is not just these aspects that make the film so intriguing. Dark of the Sun also contains a subtle performance by Kenneth Moore. As an actor he always gravitated to bluff English stereotypes and has often been accused of simply playing himself; his screen persona being forever synonymous with his performances in Northwest Frontier and Reach for the Sky. Here he bucks the trend playing an alcoholic Doctor whose conscience gets the better of him. It’s a measured and thoughtful performance proving that Moore's had a far wider range than many thought. Doctor Wreid is a flawed man who struggles with his own failure, afforded a chance to do something right, no matter how futile it may ultimately be. If only Moore had chosen other such roles during his career.
There is an element of truth to Dark of the Sun, as the two lead characters are loosely based on real life mercenaries 'Mad' Mike Hoare and Siegfried Müeller. Although far from a historically correct depiction of events, the action scenes are robust and the location filming bolsters the authenticity of the narrative. There is also an air of melancholy to the film as it ponders the end of colonialism, the futility of war and the realities of international politics. I therefore recommend Dark of the Sun to action fans as an interesting late sixties exploration of the genre. Tonally it has similarities to Cornel Wilde's World War II movie Beach Red. It certainly showcases the talents of Jack Cardiff as an eclectic director.