Where the wild west had its gunfighters, hired gun and bounty killers, the 20th century had its mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. Action movies have certainly played that angle, men with no allegiance to country or morals, just whoever will pay them the most money. Of course, it's not like mercenaries just popped up on the radar in the 1900s, they've been around for as long as there's been fighting and war going back to ancient Egypt all the way to the American Revolution when German soldiers fought alongside the British.
But in the 20th Century conflicts all around the world allowed mercenaries to step into the limelight, and nowhere is that reflected more than in the movies. Films about soldiers of fortune that come to mind include several set in Africa where government coups, overthrows and assassinations dot the continent's history. Movies like The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, and 1968's Dark of the Sun all follow the exploits and adventures of mercenaries working on the Dark Continent with all the political unrest giving them a chance to make heaps of cash.
Recruited by Congo president Ubi (Calvin Lockhart) and offered a large sum of money for their services, mercenary duo Capt. Curry (Rod Taylor) and Sgt. Ruffo (Jim Brown) agree to take on a dangerous mission in war-torn Congo in the early 1960s. They must travel almost 300 miles into enemy territory to a town housing a diamond mine. Their goal is to rescue some 60 refugees there and to find over $50 million dollars in uncut diamonds before Ubi's enemy General Moses and his Simba force can get them. Given just three days to accomplish the mission, Curry agrees.
The veteran mercenary begins to plan with his long-time friend and second in command, Ruffo, finding several officers to go along, Henlein (Peter Carsten), a German officer and former Nazi who's more interested in the diamonds than anything else, Surrier (Olivier Despax), a young Frenchman, and Reid (Kenneth More), a drunken doctor who's worked previously with Curry. With 40 soldiers from Henlein's Strike Force Blue along, Curry's column moves out on a heavily-armed train for the town 300 miles down the track, hoping to beat their deadline and avoid the brutal Simba forces.
This is an action movie with a message, but not one that director Jack Cardiff hits you over the head with. Curry is solely on the job for the cash payout he'll get upon delivery while Ruffo -- a native of Congo who was educated in the U.S. at USC -- takes the job because he sees it as a way to help his country out. The friendship between the two men is genuine, but there is conflict over their beliefs between them. Taylor and Brown are an excellent combo together and have some great scenes together as they discuss why they do what they do and what drives them inside. The ending brings this full circle with one character doing a 180 from where he was at in the beginning of the movie. For a change, it's nice to see some of the motivation these tough guys have instead of endless action scenes.
But all that message stuff aside, this is one of the great action movies of the 1960s that's never really gotten its due, thanks in great part to the lack of a DVD release from a major studio. It is a mercenary movie after all. The first half hour or so is used to set the story up but in an entertaining way as the characters and their dynamics among the group are established. But once the train takes off into Simba territory, it's never very long between action scenes. The tension between Curry and Henlein escalates quickly into a fight with a chainsaw, and that's even before the Simbas attack. These action scenes are highlighted by an extended segment midway through the movie as Curry must wait on a time-released vault to get the diamonds with a Simba force drawing nearer in an incredibly tense scene, and then the recovery of those diamonds later. Made in 1968, 'Dark' also takes advantage of the recent changes in on-screen violence with some very graphic scenes.
Other than Taylor and Brown, this isn't a cast of stars. Never a huge star to begin with, Taylor is excellent as Curry, the hardbitten soldier, and with the always tough, always reliable Brown form a good team. Carsten ends up being a strong villainous presence, and Yvette Mimieux has a smallish part as Claire, one of the refugees the train picks up. Filming in Jamaica instead of Africa -- understandably so considering the time -- it's a nicely-shot movie, aided in great part by Jacques Loussier's sweeping score (watch the title sequence here) which Quentin Tarantino sampled in Inglourious Basterds.
One of those movies that is not well known, but it is one of my favorites. Hopefully down the road there is a DVD release somewhere in sight, but until then I'll stick with my tape from a TCM showing. If you do stumble across it on TV, give it a try. Lots of action and excitement to get the blood and adrenaline flowing.
Dark of the Sun <----trailer (1968): *** 1/2 /****