aka THE MERCENARIES
(Jack Cardiff, 1968)
There are a handful of "Mission Movies" from the 1960s which have defined that sub-genre and cemented themselves in popular culture. The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and Kellys Heroes all feature big movie stars, attractive location shooting, massive action sequences and war as a backdrop. However, they are all escapist films; war is first and foremost an exciting spectacle in the mission movie. Enemies are cut down and blown up in their dozens, and there is little consideration of the meaning or morality of this. Chiefly, it's just exhilarating. Perhaps the reason that a few other impressive mission movies from the same era didn't have a similar impact is that they are darker and more ambiguous in their treatment of violence and conflict. I'm thinking of Andre DeToth's superb Play Dirty, alongside Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun.
Cardiff's film follows two mercenaries, Curry (Rod Taylor) and Roffo (Jim Brown) on a mission for the Congolese Government. They are charged with travelling 300 miles into rebel territory aboard a train, rescuing 100 civilians stranded in a mining town and the $50 million in diamonds there, and returning, all within three days. As well as the rebel army they have to contend with the racist Captain (Peter Carsten) and alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More) accompanying them.
The film never skimps on action or spectacle, but it never shies away from considering the morality of its characters either, and the fact that the heroes are mercenaries gives it a get-go ambiguity absent from many of the manichean treatments of War common in post-WW2 entertainment.
The villains here, aside from Carsten's Swastika-sporting Captain Henlein, are virtually anonymous, a mass of rebels without any individual personalities, who function as a rolling plot device, forcing our heroes actions by dint of their mere presence.
But the heroes are more interestingly shaded. Brown plays Roffo in noble matinee idol mode, cool, calm, and unruffled by all the danger and death he sees. And yet he has some righteous qualities; he is there because this is his homeland, and he wants to help establish it as a stable Nation. His cause keeps him centred, he explains to his friend Curry. Taylor's Curry is more of a type; loud and brash, his chief conflict is internal, though it is articulated in a couple of conversations with Roffo; is he working purely for the money, or does he care about the causes and people he encounters?
The film, to its credit, never really answers this question, instead suggesting that perhaps people aren't quite as simple as that. Carsten's and More's characters complicate this scheme; while both are resolutely the types that always show up in this genre (nasty racist, drunken quack), here they are well-written and strongly played. More in particular has one fine scene of sacrifice and self-discovery which seems almost out of place with the rest of the film. The films ending is especially dark, undercutting it's plotted note of triumph with a moral question.
Both Taylor and Brown are convincing as tough guys, giving the action scenes a sweaty physicality in keeping with the vividly rendered African locations. Cardiff's direction may not be especially distinctive, but he is a strong storyteller and his visuals are impressive. The action scenes are muscular and convincing - particularly a fistfight that evolves to include a chainsaw - with a clear-eyed view of violence uncommon in mission movies, and the African backdrop is beautifully athmospheric from the first scenes in the City.
It is perhaps a little stiff in places and Mimieux's character is frighteningly token, but generally this is a rollicking, sensitively toned entertainment which deserves a place in the pantheon of mission movies.
Perhaps its most unquestionable feature is a beautiful score by Jacques Loussier, nicely used in tribute by Quentin Tarantino in his own mission movie, Inglourious Basterds.