Sands of the Kalahari (1965) ****

You know the score: plane crashes in inhospitable territory (in this case a desert), personalities clash as food/water is rationed, tempers run high and/or depression sets in as attempts to attract attention fail, someone goes for help, someone else has an ingenious idea and eventually everyone rallies round in common cause. That template worked fine in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).

It doesn’t here. This is not quite as inhospitable. There is water. Caves offer shelter from the blazing sun. There is food – lizards trapped, game hunted with telescopic rifle. But the food is lean, not fattened through farming for human consumption.  And you have to watch out for marauding baboons not to mention scorpions. And this group is split, two alpha males intent on exerting dominance with little interest in common cause.

Producer Joseph E. Levine came up with the poster
without close examination of the picture’s content.

Of the six survivors of this crash, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) decides his leadership status entitles him to sole claim over the only woman, Grace (Susannah York). But when he accepts the genuine responsibilities of leadership, he sets off across the desert to get help. That leaves Grace to fall into the hands of O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), so alpha he could be auditioning for Tarzan, shirt off all the time.

It soon transpires O’Brien has a rather unusual idea of survival – getting rid of his companions so that he will have no shortage of food until rescue arrives. It takes a while for the others to catch on to his plan. And then rather than common cause and camaraderie, it becomes every man/woman for himself, a battle for individual survival, a return to the primeval.

The most likely challenger to O’Brien’s authority is Bain (Stanley Baker), but he has been badly injured in the crash and no match for the other man’s brawn or his weapon. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Except it’s in the desert, it’s the law of the jungle and the rule of autocracy brought home with sudden force to people accustomed to the comforts of civilization and democracy.  

The movie’s structure initially takes us down the obvious route of common purpose – Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) knows enough survival lore to devise a method of water transportation that would permit the group to escape the desert, Dr Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) formulates  a method of trapping lizards, and O’Brien, at least at first, appears willing to take on the role of protector, warding off baboons with his gun.

The change into something different is subtle. While the others are desperate to escape, it becomes apparent that O’Brien has found his metier. We discover little about the lives of each individual prior to being stranded. Whatever O’Brien’s standing in society, it would not have been as high as here, where his superior skills stand out. Reveling in his supremacy, he doesn’t particularly want to go home.

Like any psychopath Bain knows how to manipulate so at first it seems his decisions are for the greater good. And only gradually does it emerge that he blames others for his own mistakes and intends to eliminate his rivals for the food supply one by one. Because he is so handsome, it is impossible to believe he could be so devious or so evil.

The three principals all play against type. Stanley Baker (Zulu, 1963) and Stuart Whitman (Murder Inc., 1960) made their names playing heroic types. Here Baker is too ill for most of the picture to do any good and Whitman plays a ruthless killer. But Susannah York (Sebastian, 1968) is the big revelation. Audiences accustomed to her playing glamorous, perhaps occasionally feisty, gals will hardly recognize this portrayal of a coward, not just abjectly surrendering to the alpha male but seeking him out for protection and guilty of betrayal.

Even though this picture is set in the days before gender equality and the independent woman was a rarity, Grace’s acquiescence to the powerful male is disturbing, in part because it takes us back to the days when a woman was impotent in the face of male dominance. Such is York’s acting skill that rather than despise this woman, she earns our sympathy.

While for the most part Harry Andrews (Danger Route, 1967) and Nigel Davenport  (Sebastian, 1968) appear in their usual screen personas of strong males, here their characters both are changed by the circumstances. Theodore Bikel (A Dog of Flanders, 1960) has the most interesting supporting role, the only one who takes delight in the adventure.

Director Cy Endfield (Zulu) – who also wrote the screenplay based on the William Mulvehill novel – delivers a spare picture. There is virtually no music, just image. Aerial shots show tiny figures in a landscape. The absence of character background frames the story in the present. As a reflection on the animal instinct, how close to the primordial a human being still operates, no matter how enlightened, this works exceptionally well, and melds allegory with thriller.

Danger Route (1967) ***

If the producers had not signalled Bond-style ambitions with a big credit sequence theme song by Anita Harris, moviegoers might have come at this with more fitting expectations in the Harry Palmer and John le Carre vein. So although slipping into the late decade spy boom flourish don’t expect villains planning world domination, gadgets or a flotilla of bikinis.

Seth Holt’s bread-and-butter espionage thriller sets government agent Jonas Wild (Richard Johnson) – on his “last assignment” no less after eight licensed murders in five years – to kill off a defector in the far from exotic location of a Dorset country house not realizing that he is also being set up. That his liquidator will be a woman puts the mysterious Mari (Barbara Bouchet) in pole position.  

The Eliminator was the source material for Danger Route.

Wild gains access to the heavily-guarded mansion by seducing housekeeper Rhoda (Diana Dors) but after completing his mission is captured and tortured by Luciana – pronounced with a “k” – (Sam Wanamaker) who explains he is a patsy and that there is a mole in M.I.5. When his boss Tony Canning (Harry Andrews) disappears and another friend is murdered, Wild goes on the run with Mrs Canning (Sylvia Syms) and eventually makes his way back to his bolt-hole in Jersey to solve the mystery.

There is a decent amount of action, including a fight with a guard dog and a battle on a fog-bound yacht. Clever maneuvers abound – a bug is planted in a bandage. Treachery is always just round the corner and there is no shortage of suspects.

The film’s down-to-earth approach is somewhat refreshing after half a decade of spy thrillers and spoofs. Wild doesn’t employ anything more hi-tech than masquerading as a brush salesman to win over Rhoda. And although that relationship ends up in bed, there is no sex, Wild having drugged her to avoid that complication. Tony Canning is nagged by his wife. Wild’s girlfriend (Carol Lynley) is a sweet girl, sexy in a languid rather than overt fashion.  And Luciana takes enormous pride in telling Wild just how stupid he has been.

Sylvia Sims in a ticklish situation.

But that comes with a caveat. The plot doesn’t quite hang together and the movie sometimes fails to connect.

That said, Johnson (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) is excellent, quite an accomplished actor rather than a brand name. Both Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale) and Carole Lynley (Harlow, 1965) play against type while Sylvia Sims (East of Sudan, 1964) and Harry Andrews (The Hill, 1965) present variations to their normal screen personas. Sam Wanamaker (The Warning Shot, 1967) has a peach of a role and Gordon Jackson (The Long Ships, 1964) and Maurice Denham (The Long Duel, 1967) are afforded small but critical parts. 

This is not easy to come by, so you are best looking for a secondhand copy.

The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) **

This affectionate homage to 1920s vaudeville goes awfully astray under the heavy-handed direction of William Friedkin. Never mind the sexist approach, there’s an epidemic of over-acting apart from a delightful turn from Britt Ekland as the innocent star-struck Amish who accidentally invents striptease and former British music hall star Norman Wisdom who knows what he’s doing on the stage. The plot is minimal – burlesque theater manager (Elliott Gould) needs to save theater from going bust in a few days’ time. That’s it – honest!

The rest of the story looks tacked on – the overbearing leering other half (Jason Robards) of the Norman Wisdom double act tries to bed anything that moves, Amish father (Harry Andrews) in pursuit of his daughter, vice squad official (Denholm Elliott) determined to shut the theater down.

The saving grace of this debacle is Ekland’s performance which carries off a difficult part. Could anyone really be so dumb? She is endearing in a murky world but still capable of interpreting the Bible to her own ends (there is dance in the Good Book, for example) and she has confidence that the Lord will give her the go-ahead to have sex. Her innocence appears to transcend reality and since she doesn’t know a showbiz shark when she sees one she carries on as if life is just wonderful. Somehow this should never work but Ekland is so convincing that it does.

What might have been another saving grace is the documentary feel of much of the background, black-and-white pictures of the epoch transmuting into color, but too often the movie simply cuts to that without any real purpose. Equally, the various song-and-dance acts, chorus lines and comic turns provide an insight into burlesque reality but, again, all too often, that goes nowhere. There are plenty of people trying to be funny without much in the way of decent laughs. There’s altogether too much of everything else and not enough of the ingredients you might have considered essential.

This scarcely sounds like William Friedkin material given that although this preceded The French Connection and The Exorcist, by this point he had already made his mark with an adaptation of Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party (1968). In fact, his original cut was re-edited once he had departed the picture. Might it have worked better with Tony Curtis in the Jason Robards role as originally planned – he certainly had more charm than the jaundiced Robards. Regardless of who was cast what it needed most was a better story and less in the way of stock characters. And since in American theater folklore Minsky’s is synonymous with the invention of the striptease it meant that quite a few of the audience were there just to see how much skin would be revealed – which is not really the basis for a good mainstream picture.

The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

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