Friday, 11 May 2012

Friday Night Film: Sands Of The Kalahari

In many ways, 'Sands Of The Kalahari' is the ultimate Friday Night Film for me as it is the first film I can remember watching on a Friday night - the first film that stuck in my memory. I would have been about five years old, and I know it was a Friday because that was the night my Dad went to the pub, so my Mum would let me stay up and watch films until he got back, always slightly sozzled and with four Off Sales Crunchies in his pocket. Why did I remember this film over all others, and why do I still remember it nearly forty years on? Simple: SCARY BABOONS.

Not cheeky, just scary.

Directed by Cy Endfield as part of his partnership with the marvellous Stanley Baker, 'The Sands Of The Kalahari' is, on the surface, a fairly standard mid sixties adventure film, from the all star cast to the big budget to the mix of sex, violence and intrigue. The story is fairly straightforward, but it goes to some very odd places indeed, which makes it a FNF in every sense, not just the day of the week I first saw it.

When a small chartered plane crashes in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, the survivors face a slow and lingering death unless they can find food, water and shelter. They're a mixed bunch, as usual: a drunken ne'er do well (Stanley Baker); a sleazy pilot (Nigel Davenport); a camp German (Harry Andrews); a butch hunter (Stuart Whitman); a United Nations big wig (Theodore Bikel) and a mysterious divorcee (Susannah York, quite exquisite). After a desperate slog they find a waterhole and a cave - a place they can live in until they are rescued. They have to share it with a troop of baboons, but you can't have everything - and baboons are cute and cuddly and friendly, aren't they? Or is that chimpanzees?  

Actors - this way.

Neighbourhood watch.
What happens next is interesting: macho shirtless hunter Whitman (did I mention his character's name is Brian O'Brien? Well, it is) decides that survival of the fittest is the order of the day, and starts to wage war against the baboons (setting fire to their caves and shooting them as they run out) and his fellow survivors. He also starts sleeping with Susannah York, not because she's frigging gorgeous, but because she's the only woman and, as self-appointed Alpha Male, she must belong to him. It's at this stage we start to think he might be mental, which he confirms by knocking off Harry Andrews and forcing Bikel at gunpoint to leave the group and march across the desert to get help / die, Whitman's not bothered which. Stanley Baker realises what he's up to, of course, so he legs it, retreating to a safe distance to pick the right time to attack and knock wacky Whitman off his perch.

Susannah plays the coquette; Whitman the cock.

Looking good, Nige.

'Aargh! A scorpion, the stingingest of all arachnids!'

Harry wishes he'd brought his glasses.

Whitman looks up.
Baker looks down.

Susannah soon realises that although Whitman may be a hunk (he spends a lot of time 'Mitchum-ing', i..e. sucking in his gut), he's also a fucking psycho, so she helps Baker overcome him, only for him to escape just as a rescue helicopter finally arrives. Knowing he will face a murder charge if he returns to civillisation, Whitman instead decides to take his chances and stay where he is, even though he knows the baboons really, really want him dead.


In an increasing unsettling coda, we see time passing (Whitman grows a big beard) and the baboons getting bolder and bolder in confronting their last remaining human adversary. When he runs out of ammunition, the leader of the baboons finally attacks his slightly less hairy rival, alpha male vs alpha male, mano e mono. I'd like to know how they did it, but the fight is brilliantly and terrifying realised - I'm assuming its a mix of a real baboon, a stuffed one, a little bloke in a suit and rapid, aggressive editing that defies you to spot the difference between them. It's nasty, primal, life or death stuff. Whitman wins - just - then collapses in exhaustion.

In a very creepy conclusion, the camera pulls back to a distant cliff to show the baboon troop slowly close in on the prostrate form of their human enemy, completely surrounding him. As a kid I assumed that they would rip him apart, a horrible death even for a villain; now I see that they could equally be gathering around their newly proven leader: the Ape King is dead, long live the King. In some ways, that's an even more chilling idea.

A well made and pretty weird take on a fairly standard cinematic situation, 'Sands Of The Kalahari' sets up expectations and then refuses to play the game: the stock characters don't do what you expect; the ultimate hero is weak and washed up; the most romantic figure is the sickest, and it has a very strange conclusion. Amazingly, it was once scheduled to be a vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (in the Whitman and York roles, respectively). How this would have worked is anyone's guess (my guess: it would have been shit), but the image of the short and permanently unfit Burton stripped to the waist and fighting to the death with a vicious ape is more disturbing to me than those bloody baboons, and I still worry about them forty years down the line.      

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