"If there’s killing in the works, I want some killing done -- no free rides!" In 1968, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sentiment as hard as the one relayed with such glorious tough-guy fashion by Rod Taylor in the underrated 1968 war action-adventure Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries). Taking the men-on-a-mission motif and throwing it into a hotbed of bloodthirsty politics and uneasy team-ups, director Jack Cardiff delivers an action spectacle with surprising bite -- especially for its time. The tale of a band of mercenaries battling through a civil-war-torn Congo jungle against bloodthirsty Simba cultists is especially poignant given that it was released just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Though race plays a large part in the drama, it’s just one meaty piece of the puzzle in this gritty no-nonsense thrill-ride.
Taylor plays Captain Bruce Curry, a mercenary hired by the President of the African Congo (Calvin Lockhart) to rescue a group of white Europeans and 50 million dollars’ worth of diamonds from the middle of a war-torn jungle. By his side is Curry’s right-hand man, Sergeant Ruffo (Jim Brown), a Congolese soldier whose participation grows more out of love for the country than greed for the bounty. Also along for the ride are a drunken medical officer, Dr. Wreid (Kenneth More), and an ex-Nazi, Henlein (Peter Carsten), who commands a group of African army officers lent out for the operation.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood heavyweights love the film -- Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have both expressed their admiration, the latter going so far as to lift a few musical tracks from the exceptional Jacques Loussier soundtrack for use in Inglourious Basterds. The action is impressive and quite brutal for its time, while the subject matter gets downright lurid in a few scenes (the implied male rape scene to be precise). The theatrical poster boasts a chainsaw-vs.-bare fists fight, which is indeed a highlight, though it’s the audacious hotel raid near the end that really gets the blood pumping. As thrilling as it is (thanks to the daring direction and solid character work), the film stays true to the tragic-element trappings of any self-respecting men-on-a-mission flick. And just like the best of the subgenre, when things go bad, you feel it in your gut.
Things aren’t all so pretty, though -- Yvette Mimieux, who shared a sex scene with Taylor at one point before it was cut prior to the film’s release (despite being featured on the poster and stills), doesn’t figure into the testosterone aesthetic enough to make an impact. The Henlein character also suffers from a rather obvious case of dubbing during a sizable chunk of the film. Yet, somehow, the picture overcomes its missteps -- which aren’t many to begin with. For the most part, this is one freight train of an action picture that isn’t afraid to go to the dark places it does. It’s well worth checking out for genre enthusiasts and men who like movies about tough men.