Sunday, January 07, 2018

Diamonds for the Doomed Train

In a world of perpetual violence and upheaval extraordinary people aren't often heroes. 1968's Dark of the Sun exhibits a kind of exhilarating awareness of this. It's fascinatingly coupled with an Errol Flynn-ish adventurousness but set in a fictionalised version of real 1960s conflict in the Congo. Directed by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff the film has some distractingly dated attitudes about portraying race but at the same time there is some genuinely thoughtful dialogue. Mostly I loved it, though, because it felt like artists just trying to tell a great story without restraint.

The movie also has a Nazi with a chainsaw. That should tell you a lot right there. The film's central protagonist, an American mercenary named Curry (Rod Taylor with Australian accent frequently coming through) actually hires this Nazi, whose name is Henlein (Peter Carsten) because he needs his military expertise. That's how cutthroat our "hero" is--even after he sees the guy slaughter children.

Which is not to say they get along. The chainsaw fight ends with Curry holding Henlein's head under the train and he tells the train conductor to move it forward a bit because, he says--this is my favourite line--"I gotta fix something."

Curry makes it clear he's in it because he was promised diamonds, not for anyone's political or ideological cause. Usually when you get a guy saying something like that in a movie it ends up being a kind of pose. But in this movie, because Curry delays things to ensure he receives the diamonds, a whole train car of civilians end up getting tortured and killed. Among them is Andre Morell, quickly giving a devastating performance as his character is forced to make a terrible decision.

The diamonds are part of Curry's payment but one could argue he's also doing it because the Congolese president, who hired him, needs the diamonds. Curry's best friend and second in command, Ruffo (Jim Brown), is motivated by patriotism. A former guerilla fighter, he's fighting, and trying to secure the diamonds, because he longs for a day when his country will be independent.

Left wing common wisdom in the west from 1970 to 2010 or so would say that Ruffo is a racial stereotype, the ubiquitous "magic Negro" of socially conscious 1960s films. But as token, morally pure minority characters are becoming increasingly in vogue with the modern left, Ruffo now might be downright politically correct. There is one interesting dialogue scene, though, where Ruffo's character introduces a more thought-provoking commentary.

After witnessing the Nazi murder children, Curry asks Ruffo why he doesn't hate white people. Ruffo's reply is a story about growing up and knowing people whose violent behaviour is an expression of personalities shaped by systemic abuse, so he feels he actually understands the Nazi's brutality, as much as he is opposed to it. It's kind of an eloquent way for Ruffo to say that he doesn't hate white people because he's not a racist.

In light of the film's surprising level of violence and willingness to show good people getting slaughtered and abused the camaraderie between the men is sweet--even when it's mostly in the form of ball-breaking. Also, and this may be an artefact of the period in which the film was made, Curry and Ruffo seem to like being physically close to each other--they're almost cuddly.

Later in the film, the female lead, Claire (Yvette Mimieux), and Ruffo commiserate over how difficult it is to be around the often insensitive Curry. Ruffo explains how Curry is one of those people who won't share a part of himself with you and that this can hurt. It almost sounds like both Ruffo and Claire are in love with him. All this affection for the white man, whose personality certainly doesn't make him seem like he'd be that obviously loveable, kind of puts the movie in the "white saviour" category of story, though maybe not since Curry's success rate at saving people suffers from his marked lack of conscious motivation. Yet I found myself liking him right along with Ruffo and Claire. Maybe it's the fact that, however horrific things get, and however superficially cynical he might be, there's an irrepressible lust for life, affability, and basic good nature about Curry, largely conveyed by Taylor's performance.

His self-interested motives are offset but the loyalty he reluctantly can't help exhibiting for his friends and the disgust he exhibits at the exploitative colonial forces. It's as though he acts out of self-interest as though he thinks it's the only thing he can trust. It adds up to a surprisingly fascinating character in this rough and tumble film.

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