Sands of the Kalahari

Desert wildernesses always provide an intriguing backdrop for movies. The vast emptiness of such settings, and their necessarily harsh conditions, has a minimalist quality that not only encourages but demands strong characterization. The barren, unforgiving landscape means that attention is easily focused on those who people it, and the various tribulations they must endure. As such, everything tends to appear heightened – dangers and relationships, strengths and weaknesses – and the potential exists for a rawer, more honest type of drama. Sands of the Kalahari (1965) is a survivalist epic, superficially an adventure story with a deceptively simple plot. As the tale unfolds both the group dynamic and human nature itself are explored, not always with palatable results, and the twists it takes are fascinating. It also benefits from an ending that is simultaneously bleak, shocking, and tantalizingly ambiguous.

A charter plane has a freak encounter with a swarm of locusts, forcing a crash landing deep in the Kalahari desert of Namibia. Six disparate individuals stumble from the burning wreckage and must find a way to survive beneath the equally scorching African sun. This will be a test of their resolve, their character and their inventiveness. Ultimately though, the trials ahead of them will ask some very fundamental questions about the humanity of all these people. Initially, it’s the pilot, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport), who takes charge and sets about organizing the rag-tag group. However, this film never follows a predictable course, and Sturdevan is gradually revealed to be too venal to serve as a leader. It gradually becomes apparent that particular mantle is to be passed on to O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), a hunter and, crucially, the man with the gun. When Sturdevan decides to set off alone in an attempt to reach some settlement and alert them to their plight, O’Brien has no serious rivals for dominance. Of the other men, Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) is elderly, Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) is too soft, and Bain (Stanley Baker) is a recovering drunk with a leg wound. The sole female is Grace Munkton (Susannah York), an attractive society type and a fish out of water. While this little band are fortunate enough to come upon shelter (a cave) and a plentiful water supply, the problem of acquiring food remains an ever-present threat. Their temporary refuge is situated in an area with a large baboon population but, as Grimmelman points out, eating these fearsome creatures would be a little too similar to cannibalism for anyone’s taste. O’Brien points out that the apes represent competition for the limited food available, and so he takes it upon himself to wipe out as many as possible. However, even as group begin to settle into a familiar routine, it begins to dawn on Bain in particular that O’Brien is not the kind of man to tolerate competition of any kind, from any quarter. And so the internal tensions, and threats, rise in tandem with the need to survive. As the story develops, what becomes more and more obvious is that the danger from within is as great as, and perhaps even greater than, that posed by the forces of nature.

So, aside from being a first-rate adventure yarn, what is Sands of the Kalahari about? Well, the idea that adversity brings out both the best and worst in everybody for a start. All of the six people who find themselves stranded in the back of beyond are tested in various ways, physically, psychologically and morally. It’s how each one responds to the challenges, what they learn about themselves and we about them, that constitutes the core of the drama. Those who eventually find a way out, and I don’t think it’s a major spoiler to say that not everyone does, have been altered by their experiences. In addition, as viewers we are forced to reassess our first impressions of each of the characters: the quiet, passive ones become more proactive, the weak demonstrate reserves of strength, and the strong have their weaknesses revealed. This kind of plotting keeps us forever on our toes, never allowing any sense of complacency regarding the perception of characters to set in. Just when we think we’ve got someone figured out, either the circumstances or the sheer perversity of human nature throws us for a loop. Of course the movie also raises questions about how civilized we really are, and how far we’ve actually traveled from our primitive ancestors. Even those who started out disparaging supposedly lesser peoples, and Sturdevan is a good example of this, gradually come to rely on the techniques and skills they had previously thought beneath them in order to survive. That’s viewing things from a positive  perspective; but there’s a darker flip side to this too. If there is a lesson about using our basic abilities to overcome difficulties then there’s another one relating to the dangers of regressing to the point of savagery. The evolution of O’Brien’s character is a perfect illustration of this, where he ultimately fails as a human being but, conversely, rises to become master of his barbaric environment.

Sands of the Kalahari was produced by the team of Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield after the actor and director had been successful with Zulu. Endfield, along with cameraman Erwin Hillier, really made the most of the location shooting. There are some beautiful long shots of the desert, and the old western staple of positioning tiny figures against a background of massive rock formations is an ideal way of emphasizing the pettiness of the struggle these people engage in, their relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and of course their isolation. Additionally, the close-up work in the interior of the cave highlights the  tightness of the group, and makes the betrayals and treachery that occur all the more powerful. I think it’s worth noting too how well Endfield made use of the baboons surrounding the survivors. These apes are presented as a kind of noisy yet brooding menace lurking just beyond the limits of the camp. The animals are frequently photographed from above, perched high on rocky outcrops, which suggests their surveillance of the movements of the human interlopers has both a remoteness and a disdainful quality.

Stanley Baker was one of the biggest stars that British cinema produced, and was possessed of a magical and rare combination of talents that allowed him to convincingly play sensitive and tough parts with equal assurance. His role as Bain, the drunken engineer from the Congo, afforded him the opportunity to touch on both. As I said earlier, none of the characters in the movie follow the path that their initial appearances allude to; Bain seems at first to be a washed-up loser, a physical and emotional cripple, a largely ineffectual presence. However, his trials trigger something of a rebirth, and he is gradually and credibly transformed into the most heroic figure in the cast. Squared off against Baker is Stuart Whitman, radiating pure machismo and the ultimate survivor. I’ve often been less than impressed by Whitman’s performances, feeling not so much that he was poor but more that he could have been a whole lot better. Sands of the Kalahari provided him with probably his best part, playing to his strengths and exploiting his physicality to great effect. He has all the attributes of the hero, and starts off looking like the man who we’re going to root for, the guy most likely to save the day. However, this ruthless hunter, the group’s self-proclaimed provider, turns out to be a very different beast. It’s he who displays the lightest veneer of civilization, who adapts most readily and successfully to the primal surroundings. Whilst his character’s progression, or perhaps regression is a more apt description, is entirely logical and maybe even predictable, this does nothing to diminish the shock of his final actions. I really don’t want to go into details regarding the ending of the movie for to do so would rob it of much of its power for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that Whitman’s character fulfills his ultimate destiny, and the last shot leaves everything open to each individual viewer’s interpretation. Susannah York’s displaced socialite stands between Baker and Whitman, her presence representing both an enticement and a provocation. Although she plays a pivotal part in the drama I felt she was, ironically, the least rounded character; by the end of the film she, and her motivations, remained something of an enigma for me. The rest of the cast – Davenport, Andrews and Bikel – all did sterling work and I can’t think of a moment when I wasn’t gripped by their performances. Davenport in particular turns in a marvelously manipulative piece of work, pulling the viewer’s sympathy every which way as his lecherous pilot rises, falls and rises yet again in our estimation.

Sands of the Kalahari is a movie that seemed to be out of circulation for an awful long time. I can vividly remember catching a late night television broadcast of this some time in the late 80s and I can safely say I was enthralled. The film, and that jaw-dropping finale, remained lodged in my memory, but it never appeared again. To say I was delighted when I saw the announcement that Olive Films in the US, having licensed the title from Paramount, was putting it out on DVD would be a huge understatement. The movie is also available on Blu-ray, but I believe it’s locked to Region A. Anyway, I purchased the DVD and I certainly have no regrets – it was high up on my wish list for so many years. The DVD from Olive is a basic bare bones effort but the transfer should give no cause for complaint. It’s anamorphic scope and looks great – sharp, clean and colourful. If you have any affinity at all for adventure movies, especially those with exotic locales and compact casts, then this should push your buttons. What’s more, this is no brainless action flick; it’s a literate and thoughtful piece of work that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I recommend it, unreservedly.


26 thoughts on “Sands of the Kalahari

  1. Wonderful review of an underseen, gripping and provocative movie, Colin! I think you may be right, this might be Stuart Whitman’s finest hour. I like him well enough as an affable leading man in stuff like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES and THE COMANCHEROS, but he really unleashes a powerful, bestial side in this film. It works both as a grand adventure/survival story and as a LORD OF THE FLIES-like study of humanity. The build up to the crash, as the various passengers come together for their ill-fated flight, and their initial, civilized reactions to each other, are quite well-realized. I think Susannah York’s character is presented realistically if not in a manner that all people, especially women, might approve. Her character’s reactions and decisions are the most controversial and provocative aspects of the film, and perhaps are mostly indicative of the time the film was made, but they do, I think, create a fascinating dynamic. Of course, as you say, all the rest of the cast are terrific.

    Overall, I find this a unique and absorbing movie that deserves to be more widely seen. It shares a few similarities with the earlier FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, but the presence of a woman in the mix, coupled with the menace of the baboons, makes this one standout. That final scene is indeed a doozy, and has stuck with me for several decades, as I remember catching SANDS on TV when I was young but not knowing the title or ever getting a chance to see it again until Olive’s most welcome release. I have the Blu-Ray BTW and it looks great.


    • Jeff, that’s an interesting point you bring up there. This is very much a man’s movie in terms of theme, casting, setting etc. I’ve never had the opportunity to get a woman’s opinion on it, and I do wonder how well it would play, particularly how York’s role would come across. Like you, I suspect it may draw a negative response.

      The film certainly has some parallels with Flight of the Phoenix, but there’s a much harder, more cynical edge to this one – overall, it presents a more pessimistic view of human nature.


  2. This is certainly a wonderful adventure film. Shown often on TV in the UK during the 70s, the subsequent infrequent showings has been odd. (Rather like the similar vansihing act performed by Mitchum’s “Mister Moses”). “Sands…” made a big impression on me back then and the fact that it subsequently became almost unknown always adds to the curiosity to see it again. In the 70s, I remember being intigued by the differences of character Whitman showed in this one compared to his Jim Crown in “Cimarron Strip”. “Sands…” has been shown recently on TV here but, incredibly, in a terrible pan & scan version and with several cuts. For all that, I haven’t actually picked up the Olive release yet. Mainly because I’ve been dithering about whether or not to wait and get the blu-ray version…although I haven’t adopted BD yet. Reading your review has persuaded me to just get the DVD! Thanks for the review.


    • Pan & scan versions of scope movies are just horrendous, even more so when the landscape is part and parcel of the story.
      I’m at a loss too to know why this film seemed to dip into sudden obscurity – it’s not like it’s a sub par movie.
      Dafydd, I was unsure about whether or not the Olive Blu was region locked so played it safe and went with the DVD. I’ve no doubt the BD would offer a better image but I see nothing wrong with the DVD.


    • In terms of quality of presentation, I haven’t had any cause for complaint with the Olive releases that I’ve bought so far.

      You should give this movie a try if you get the opportunity Michael.


  3. Your review of this film is incisive. When “Sands” was first released in this country, it was dismissed as simply a basic “adventure/survival ” film of no particular special interest, and often screened as a supporting film. In fact, the mediocre/indifferent reviews that I read, persuaded me that it was not worth going out of my way to see, and I didn’t. It certainly looks as though I was sadly misled. Fortunately this can now be rectified.

    As previously pointed out, this film probably suffered because of the release of the similar “Flight of the Phoenix” in the same year and James Stewart would certainly attract more attention than Stuart Whitman, in the acting stakes. It may well be, that the “open to individual viewers’ interperation” ending that you have mentioned, caused some consternation to the more conservative audiences of the day.


    • Rod, it’s interesting for me to hear that the movie initially drew a negative or indifferent critical response. In many ways, I feel it’s a highly provocative movie, one that challenges the viewer’s preconceptions at most every turn. I like Flight of the Phoenix very much, but I’d honestly say that, of the two, it falls more into the “traditional adventure” category.


  4. Hi Colin, terrific review of a film that I find very hard to like – of course, that is part of the point as it is as much a test of endurance as an adventure. I remember finding it incredibly bleak but impressive but I also haven’t seen it in yonks and it is in many ways such a bitter movie that I suspect that its toughness may have stopped me from watching it again. I have friends who absolutely adore it and really will have to watch it again after reading your piece on it, for which many thanks.


    • Hi Sergio. I quite understand how the film could be termed hard to like – there is a meanness to it, a tough, unforgiving quality that I guess is a reflection of the setting.
      I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, but that’s another one that can be quite harrowing. Now there’s a movie where I find a lot to admire in the storytelling and direction but I’d have to admit it’s not an easy watch.


      • Interesting comparison you make there as I’m a big fan of THE NAKED PREY (probably why i unexpectedly quite enjoyed Gibson’s near-remake, APOCALYPTO). I do need to watch KALAHARI again but there is a breed of 60s and 70s movies that are so intense and despairing in their depiction of individuals that I often tend to switch-off (sic) – I tend to find this about some Aldrich movies (though not FLIGHT OF THE PHONEIX, which is pretty light and fuzzy compared with the Enfield), and most Peter Collison flicks of the era (I would include Winner except I actually do like his early, more comedic films like THE SYSTEM). I don’t want to overstate this though but I guess it comes from being brought up in Italy in the 70s which was a pretty cynical age in general and so even at the cinema.


        • The late 60s and 70s did see a significant number of fairly bitter, vaguely misanthropic movies. I suppose that’s not altogether surprising given the times, but I don’t mind it so much. I was growing up in Northern Ireland at that time and there was a kind of resigned cynicism in the air.

          Flight of the Phoenix now seems like an atypical piece of work by Aldrich, lacking a lot of the sourness that he generally brought to the screen. Having said that, I can watch an Aldrich movie anytime, regardless of whether it’s one of his lighter or darker works.


          • You’re made of sterner stuff than me mate – I’ve got to have a glimmer of hope there somewhere at least every other film (speaking of which, very much looking forward to the Olive release of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING after years of waiting).


            • Agreed, Twilight’s Last Gleaming has been a long time coming – most welcome.

              Not wishing to labour the point too much, but I honestly feel that even in Aldrich’s bitter moments there is something positive. It might not be hope exactly, but he often conveys the idea of a kind of honour coming out of defeat or loss.


              • That’s true of films like ATTACK certainly but I’m not so sure about HUSTLE (A film I really like in many ways) or EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE or the James Hadley Chase adaptation, GRISSOM GANG for instance – TOO LATE THE HERO is probably the one I’m really thinking of here …


                • You know, I actually had both Hustle and Too Late the Hero in mind when I replied. Both those movies end with something of a sucker punch, but I’d argue that the characters have achieved a kind of personal vindication or maybe even nobility, either in spite of or because of what happens.


                  • Hmm, I would have to re-watch these Colin – which in the case of HUSTLE I am more than happy to do but I have never responded positively to TOO LATE THE HERO (and in fact don’t own a copy). But I will give it a go as I have a couple of mates who i know agree with you and i bet they have copies they could lend me!


                    • Yeah, give them another go. Of course, your reaction may be exactly the same as it was – we all perceive things differently and respond in our own ways.
                      But do come back and tell me, even if it’s only to point out that my judgement’s seriously flawed and I’m spouting nonsense! 🙂

                      EDIT: I wrote a piece on Hustle a few years back if you want to check it out.


  5. Maybe it’s odd, but I had a crush on Stanley Baker when I was 10, after seeing him in Zulu. I haven’t seen this movie since I was a kid. But I always liked survival stories. Plus this has Baker and Davenport and Whitman! I will definitely revisit this film. Thanks for another nice writeup


    • Well, as a man, I’m not really in a position to say whether that’s odd or not Muriel 🙂

      The cast may be small but it’s a terrific one. Actually, if you do watch this again I’d love to hear your take on it as a woman – as I mentioned earlier, it does seem to be very much a man’s picture.


  6. I saw it when it came out, very excited because I had been completely enthralled by ZULU the previous year. And I was very let down–the harsh side of it seemed to become unrelenting and depressed me. But it sounded so interesting reading your piece (don’t remember it well at all) that you have me persuaded to take another look.

    A good friend of mine has complained for years about Stuart Whitman as some kind of really bad actor, but I don’t understand this at all. I find him generally very good and sometimes more than that. I had occasion to single him out in an early supporting role in THESE THOUSAND HILLS in a piece of mine.

    The comments about Robert Aldrich are very interesting and do resonate for me–he’s not warm and fuzzy (though can have an interesting flowery side) and I don’t look for much lightness in his movies. But I do think there is often something redemptive even in the harsh ones, and I don’t agree about THE GRISSOM GANG. I saw this again recently; initially it seems unsparing in violence and lack of anything positive, but at the end the Scott Wilson and Kim Darby character find something genuine and moving in their relationship that is completely unexpected, and paradoxically
    would not have ever happened without the initial crime. Something good comes into their lives that never would have any other way.


    • That’s a good point about how the film appears in relation to Zulu. Coming from the same production team, and featuring another African setting, contemporary viewers must have been expecting something else. It is a pretty downbeat tale, even more so when you make that comparison.
      I guess I was lucky enough to come to the movie fresh, in the sense that I first caught it more or less by accident and didn’t make the connection to Zulu until it was over.


  7. Stuart Whitman’s best film by a country mile! We saw this at the drive-in and were floored by it. Saw it again on tv in a chopped up version a decade later. I now have a nice copy someone made for me off a premium cable channel. Nice job, Colin.


    • I think that first time I saw this the fact the story developed in such an unexpected and, for the time at least, brutal direction made a big impression on me.


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