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martedì 12 luglio 2011

Africa blood and guts as seen through the Technicolor eye of Jack Cardiff: The lion (1962), Dark of the sun (aka The mercenaries, 1968).

“…Michael Powell always said Cardiff was the greatest cameraman in the world and he did such things with colour - I wouldn’t say people can’t do it today, but it never seems as good as Cardiff did.” (Marius Goring)

I had the pleasure to meet Jack Cardiff back in 1997 at a film festival. He was already in his mid 80’s and I was supposed to interview him for fifteen minutes. The conversation, one of the most memorable I had, lasted for two hours and it ended only with his exquisite wife begging me and him to stop because she was concerned for her husband health, since he was old and needed to rest. Well, he didn’t occur to me that he actually was 84 at that time, since he precisely remembered everything about his movies and the ones he shot as d.o.p. He was one of the greatest cameraman of all time; to my knowledge, the only cinematographer turned director, that won the Academy Award for his photography and was nominated as best director as well (Sons and lovers, 1960).
Due to his greatness as cameraman, his movies as director are always put aside, but most of them are as good as exciting, specially when his great visual sense and style were applied to a serviceable story. He has turned his eyes twice over the black continent with striking results. His vision of Africa had the million colours of mother nature and the million controversies of the people living in it. From the hunters to the mercenaries,  “whites” were always (and still are) the exploiters of this immense natural treasure.

The Lion

Robert Hayward (William Holden) is visiting his former wife Christine (Capucine), remarried to ex hunter, now reserve guard in the heart of Africa, John Bullit (Trevor Howard). Christine has problems with Tina, the girl they had together and that never met his father and can’t remember him. Tina has grown with a profound affection for Bullit, that has encouraged her fondness for animals and care for the uncontaminated nature. Tina is fascinated by everything into this lost paradise, even the most obscure and incomprehensible rituals of the native tribes. She has been bewitched by Africa, she is possessed by her ancient wilderness. Tina has a special relationship with King, a big, young, lion that she has nursed since the animal was just a puppy. She’s also the object of attention of a young warrior whose expectations are to be chief of his tribe soon and marry the little girl.
Christine, still in love with her first husband, has realized that she made a mistake. Romance and infatuation for the wild are long time gone; the problems remain as Tina is growing fierce every day more and with no education. Matter of fact Christine wants Hayward to take their daughter away. Shot in 1962 in Cinemascope and on location, the film is full of beautiful landscapes of the uncontaminated country of Kenya. At the time it was a wonder, while today it is the rest of the story the most interesting, since every viewer can enjoy the beauties of wildlife on cable channels like Discovery or Animal Planet.
Often dismissed as tearjerker and conventional, Cardiff’s film offers a whole lot of extremely daring themes rendered with subtle innuendos, hidden behind the larger than life vistas of the savannah.Tina has a reverse Oedipus complex, while looking for a father like figure to love. She is growing up faster exposed to the beauty but even the cruelty of this savage environment. She is too young to be aware of her sexual life and the sexual complications that her presence implies, but she is nurturing the seeds that will blossom soon in a beautiful and desirable flower. The lion is both her puppet, her (un) imaginary friend and the object of a compulsory, obsessive affection. The lion is a mate, a beast that will succumb to the beauty, because of his love. The triangle faced feline is part of the many triangles that represent the lives of the characters. Christine, Robert, Tina, - Robert, Christine, Bullit, - Bullit, Christine, Tina, and Tina, Lion, Warrior. The last two will destroy themselves to win over the love of Tina; the perverse and fascinating primordial chaos will be annihilated. Order will be restored by civilization, the establishment of family is saved, the original triangle Robert, Christine, Tina recomposed. This is a coming of the age tale mixed with the beauty and the beast myth, full of erotic tension between all the characters involved. Only suffering a fatal loss, Tina will grow and be aware that she doesn’t belong there.
Still unreleased on DVD in the US and most of the countries of the world, The Lion has been made available by Fox in Spain in their, already mentioned in this blog, Cinema Classics Collection. There are no extras, the Amaray case is housed in a nice cardboard. The film is very well presented with a digital transfer that features a 2.35:1 AR, probably sourced from some dupe materials (OAR 2.55:1). Audio English and Spanish with removable Spanish subs. Unfortunately, while there are almost no damages, or materials issues (except for those involving some optical processes like fade ins and outs and over impositions) the movie has not been 16X9 enhanced and it's region 2 coded. 


Dark of the sun


“The gun's Chinese, Ruffo, paid for by Russian rubles. The steel probably came from a West German factory built by French francs. Then it was flown out here on a South African airline probably subsidized by The United States. I don't think he got very far." (Captain Curry)

Captain Curry (Rod Taylor) is a mercenary at the service of the Congo’s president. The newborn state is in danger under the pressure of groups of rebels, ferocious tribes well armed and determined to subvert the democracy, for power and ethnic reasons. Together with Ruffo (Jim Brown) a well bred and educated native that decided to stay and fight for his country pacification, Curry has three days to recover a case of diamonds in the vault of a bank in the north of the country, a region menaced by the rebels. The president needs the help of a multinational, owner of the stones, to keep his Republic alive, he needs weapons and men and only when the diamonds, worth fifty millions dollars, have been brought back, the foreign company will finance his government with the money he needs to keep fighting. Curry and Ruffo assemble a blue force from the best men of the regular Congolese army, under the command of Heinlein (Peter Carsten) a German born officer (based on a real lifer character) that doesn’t hide his past wearing a shiny swastika (the real man was photographed wearing an iron cross) on his regular uniform; another merciless mercenary without scruples.
The mission starts and it’s a disaster from the beginning. The train is attacked by ONU that consider it not an humanitarian mission but a breakthrough in a monitored area. Then when they finally get to town, Curry and Ruffo have to wait three hours until the vault of the bank will open. Time enough for the rebels to arrive and attack them. Initially escaped, the convoy has to stop due to the rebels’ bombing of the tracks and a missing carriage of refugees, the case with the diamonds is kept by the multinational’s representative, stuck there.
When Curry decides to counter attack the town at night, for the people it’s too late, all of them have been slaughtered, tortured and raped. Curry and Ruffo manage to get the diamonds back and steal some trucks, in which to load up the survivors.
Run out of gas, Curry gets a Jeep and heads to a closer telecommunication point but before to go leave the diamonds to Ruffo, that questioned him about the possibility for him to run away. As soon as Ruffo says so, he understands that made a mistake not to trust his friend and hides the case in the Jeep.
When Curry comes back, with the news he was able to deliver a rescue message, finds Ruffo killed by Heinlein that was trying to steal the diamonds. Curry goes on a rampage screaming for a bloody revenge. After completed the slaughter, Curry decides to win back the respect of the soldiers with him, that were scared of his reactions and cold blooded inhumanity. He turns in to one of his officials to be court martial for the killing of Heinlein.
Shot in 1968, Dark of the sun is a blood drenched trip into the brutal reality of an African civil war. At the moment of this writing, two hundred and fifty women have been raped and many have been killed in an attack of a ferocious armed group, in a war that is still going in Congo after so many years. The recent events make this film even more meaningful and prophetic. The situation didn’t get better, if possible got much worse and after all this time from the  movie and the Wilbur Smith’s novel on which the film is based is as dramatic as unchanged.
The mercenary figure has never been showed with such in depth and controversy as in this powerful film that is as shocking nowadays as it was in 1968. Arrogance and violence are the only mean these men have to relate to the world that surrounds them. Only Ruffo is a positive character, with his idealistic thoughts of a better future for his country. Matter of fact he’s the one that will die stabbed in the back. Even the President has his own political reasons, that are stronger than his humanitarians ones. The rescue of the civilians comes second to the recovery of the diamonds that will allow him to stay and consolidate his power. A problem that affected African countries for most of the last century and still is nowadays. After the apparently end of the colonialist period, Europe and US have found new ways to keep their power over these countries exploiting them with the multinationals that have no interest to a real development of the area. The more confusion and war the better: a weak government it’s easy to control and to be persuaded to give concessions for whatever it is oil, diamonds and other natural resources. Humanitarian missions were unable to solve mass genocide like the one that took place in Rwanda and to finance some governments that are only puppets in the hand of an hidden master is no solution. The African dilemma is still unresolved and there’s no political will to do. Facing this back in 68, Curry’s line from the film quoted above synthesize the whole problem with brilliant simplicity.
This is a buddy film, where males are unable to cope with the other sex if not only trough violence and overwhelming manners. There’s a woman, a refugee (Yvette Mimieux) that shows interest in Curry, but he doesn’t know how to relate to her, giving away at the end a possible future romance with her, deciding to be prosecuted. But their relationship is almost neutral, I had the impression (coming from some stills) that a romance between the two has been shot and cut out to render Curry’s character colder and un romantic. While the relationships between the males is made by mutual hate and disrespect and even friendship leaves room for suspect and deception. The hidden desire to prevail one over the other has the only function  to mask an almost latent homosexual desire.
A bleak journey into violence and when it comes to graphics, nothing is spared. Bodies dismembered and bare stripped are lacerated by the wounds inflicted, as a parallel to the ones suffered by an entire continent. Brutality and rapes, of both men and women, are shown to the outmost resulting effects and it’s still a wonder the movie found its way to the theatres. Performances are excellent: in the case of Taylor, one of his finest. He plays Curry with subtle coldness, and sudden flies into rage. Brown is simple and likeable, while Carsten is a perfect and unforgettable villain. Dialogues are excellent as well, helping all of them to deliver more than one memorable line.
The DVD analyzed here is part of the DVD on demand program of The Warner Archive Collection. It features a new transfer of good quality with few minor issues due to the conditions of the original materials. The image is crisp and colours (Metrocolor) are saturated and with warm tones. OAR of 2.35:1 is retained and 16X9 enhanced. Audio is good and a trailer (the very same one under here) is included as the solely extra.
Recently a good documentary on Cardiff has been released: Cameraman: the life and work of Jack Cardiff. An extensive Dark Of The Sun deconstruction will be featured from my fellows’ bloggers at soon. I suggest to take a look as they have an unusual and always interesting approach to movies.
As I strongly recommend everybody Cardiff’s films, specially Dark Of The Sun, a unique, unmatched piece of filmmaking, daring, compelling and shocking at the same time. It couldn't be a better source of inspiration for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds out there.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar


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