Escape from Zahrain (1962) ***

After being attacked by armored cars and strafed by airplanes, stranded in the desert, and overcome various tensions within the small group of escapees, there is still considerable life left in this picture at the end as Jack Warden, making his departure, comes up with a classic last line: “We must do this again sometime.”

In truth, the picture has far more going for it than a mere outline would suggest. In rescuing rebel leader Yul Brynner from a lorry bound for jail, the escapees led by Sal Mineo (Exodus, 1960) in a stolen ambulance also scoop up three convicts including American fraudster and loudmouth Jack Warden (That Kind of Woman, 1959) and all-purpose thug Anthony Caruso (a television regular) plus a nurse Madhlyn Rhue (A Majority of One, 1961) as a hostage. Like most desert films, the storyline is on who will survive and how.

Action is one constant. The threat of failure is another. Supplies are rationed and, of course, someone steals more than their fair share. The members regularly switch allegiance. At various points someone is about to give up Yul Brynner. Their gas tank is punctured so, thanks to Warden’s engineering skills, they just make it to a remote pumping station where James Mason pops up in a cameo as a maintenance man. Their numbers diminish and despite his recalcitrance Warden’s engineering skills save them again when they reach an oasis.

This was originally intended as a starring vehicle for Clark Gable with Edward Dmytryk in the director’s chair.

What makes the film different is that the characters all change. In a country where “half the wealth is stolen by Europeans and half by corruption,” Brynner is the altruistic leader whose ideals are shattered. Rhue, a Muslim, drinks alcohol and questions the number of deaths necessary for a revolution but declines to leave when the opportunity arises. Mineo who thinks “women should be as free as men” reacts badly when Rhue enjoys such freedom. Warden, who has embezzled $200,000, and has loyalty to no one stands by the shambolic crew.

I had always believed Brynner had enjoyed a rare case of beginner’s luck when he won the Oscar for his debut in The King and I (1956) and that once Hollywood became wise to his acting schtick he would never be nominated again – as proved the case. But after watching Brynner in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its sequel and Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) and Flight to Ashiya (1964) I have become convinced he is under-rated as an actor. He acts with his eyes and his delivery is far more varied than I had supposed. Here, clothed in Arab costume, there is no bald pate to distract.  

British director Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory, 1960) holds the enterprise together, keeping to a tidy pace but allowing tension and character to emerge.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.