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.