Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dark of the Sun (1968)

aka The Mercenaries

There’s a Civil War in the Congo (which isn’t completely modelled on the actual situation in the country at the time of the film’s making, at least as far as I understand it, which is never far enough, but seems to be a sort of “worst of” of actual conflicts in post-colonial Africa) between the corrupt, westernized government and equally unpleasant insurgents mixing the worst of the West with the worst of local traditions. To survive, Congo’s president really needs the money and help of a large Belgian (and yeah, the bitter irony of that does definitely not go over this film’s head) company; of course, that help comes with a price tag.

The Belgians want a large amount of diamonds stored at the other end of the country in an area mostly under rebel control; because that sort of thing sells better to a potential public, they also want the president to secure the safety of a number of their employees in that area. It’s clear to everybody involved the people aren’t a priority, of course.

Doing this dirty job falls on the shoulders of mercenary Curry (Rod Taylor) and his Congolese, US-educated friend Ruffo (Jim Brown, my favourite football player turned actor doing good as always). Because it’s that sort of film the operation has to take place with the protagonists travelling through dangerous territory on board of an armed train and with the help of Nazi war criminal (and now officer in the Congolese army) Henlein (Peter Carsten), an alcoholic Doctor (Kenneth More) and a bunch of poor Congolese soldiers the film will in the end do its best to humanize. Not surprisingly, things go neither well nor easy, putting the friendship of the idealistic Ruffo and the professionally cynical Curry to the test, as well as forcing the latter man to take a good long look in the mirror.

In an alternative movie history, Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun has resulted in quite a different kind of mercenary war movies, films that always tried and often succeeded to think about moral, politics, and even a little about the position of race and education in the context of both while still delivering the war movie thrills expected of them, with characters (here in particular Jim Brown’s Ruffo) that are more complicated than props just there to pull triggers. In ours, not many directors or producers seem to have cared much.

However, this still leaves us with Dark of the Sun, a film willing to actually think about what the – brutal, exciting, and increasingly unpleasant – action in it means in the context of the life of real people, a film that is honest enough to demonstrate how most of the violent conflicts in Africa are products of the former colonial rule and still at least in part driven by foreign interests who just don’t give a damn about the lives they destroy as long as there’s money in it. The film seems to suggest the West/North taking responsibility for its own sins as important part of the solution (as exemplified not just by Curry’s acts at the film’s end). We’re mostly still waiting for that one in reality to happen.

The film’s not perfect in this regard, of course. Contemporary viewers will probably feel deeply uncomfortable with the way the rebels do fall into the Black Barbarian smiting civilization category all too well. Though it has to be said that the film sees the Nazi Henlein as a symptom of basically the same problem (perhaps with humanity at large) as the rebels, and even Curry’s final killing of Henlein as coming from the same spirit, and so seems to define “civilization” as the state where you don’t slaughter people. Which is a point I find rather difficult to disagree with. And of course, how many war and in particular mercenary movies do think about these things at all, not to speak of with a degree of nuance?

Now, while this all might sound as if Dark of the Sun were a rather dry and perhaps even preachy movie, it is anything but. Instead, Cardiff takes the moral and political questions, and his characters, and packs it all into as exhilarating a war movie as you can find. It might seem to be a contradictory approach, but then the war movie is as contradictory a genre as possible, and like all exploitation movies of many genres, more often than not interested in having its cake and eating it too.

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