The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sands of the Kalahari

Ah, the survival film, the type of movie that makes you think how you would react in a life and death, do or die situation. Me? I'd probably wet myself and die of fright in most situations. Adrift at sea, stranded anywhere from a snow-covered mountain to a barren, savage desert wasteland, it all sounds pretty hellish to me. A straightforward story of survival with a hugely dark message, enter 1965's Sands of the Kalahari.

Traveling across Africa, Grace Munkton (Susannah York) is at the airport waiting for her flight when over the loudspeaker she hears her flight has been indefinitely postponed. She heads to a nearby hotel and is woken up hours later by a knock at the door. Several passengers have agreed to pay a pilot, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) with his own plane to fly them to their destination. With five passengers, Sturdevan takes off but hours out from the airfield they fly directly into an immense swarm of locusts. The engines give out, the plane crash-landing in the middle of the African desert. Now with limited supplies, Grace, Sturdevan and four other individuals must survive. They're trapped in the middle of the desert with no indication of where they are, where they should head. Making it worse? Sturdevan was unable to report his position before crashing. Can the group survive? Can they survive each other?

'Kalahari' comes from director Cy Endfield (who also wrote the screenplay) and star Stanley Baker who had worked together a year earlier on the very successful Zulu. It keeps the African location, but from there the similarities end. This flick was filmed on-location in South-West Africa and Spain, an expansive, sun-drenched look to the desert survival story. The music is kept to a minimum, the focus almost entirely on the survival aspect. It is based off a novel by author William Mulvihill and gets points for some wise choices. It's unglamorous, gritty, cynical and dark. It explores the possibilities when a situation is quite literally life and death. How would you respond? Would you freak out? Would you do your best to remain calm, hold out for hope and rescue? It's hard not to at least think of this story on a personal level in that sense.

The survivors certainly cover the gamut in terms of variety. We get a female character, an old man, strapping young man, the educated, the physical, the bullying. A little society pops up among the survivors who find a relative life when they stumble across a cave carved into an immense black rock mountain, a water hole nearby with a limited food supply. Baker plays Bain, an alcoholic engineer who's injured in the crash. Davenport has a character that's odd across the board in terms of personal choices, the pilot Sturdevan an interesting, flawed character. York adds the interesting element as the woman, drawn to Stuart Whitman's O'Brien, a big-game hunter who's traveling with two high-powered rifles in tow. Whitman is the star here, his O'Brien realizing how tenuous their grasp on survival is, and he's willing to make some harsh decisions. There's also Harry Andrews as Grimmelman, an aging German man with desert experience, and Theodore Bikel as Dr. Bondrachai, a professor with tons of knowledge but not necessarily life experience.

I liked this movie enough to seek out the novel from Mulvihill. I read it over a couple days, an entertaining, interesting read that I enjoyed. Endfield's adaptation is odd in a sense, trying to add some more profound outlooks on life. He doesn't just show the desperation for survival. He has to tell us about it. Everything is spelled out for us. Campfire scenes try to explain what's happening, about their situation, about how they're changing. I think they're trying to be profound in their analysis of humans, survival and that desperation that sets in with death on the line. Just show it though. These long, expository scenes of dialogue become tedious and worse than that, condescending.

If there's a weakness, it's that the story isn't as interested in spelling things out. 'Kalahari' leaves a couple loose ends in the finale about what happens to certain characters. The ending itself is perfect in its execution. There's some good twists along the way, some good performances, but it's also a tad slow-moving and drifts along at parts. I wanted to really like this one, but I came away with mixed feelings. I'll recommend it, but this is a decent movie that could have been significantly better.

Sands of the Kalahari (1965): ** 1/2 /****

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