When you see a movie at a very young age, it can make such a great impression upon you, that you remember it for the rest of your life. Despite the fact that I only saw the film ‘Sands of the Kalahari’ once in the late 1960’s and never managed to see it again on TV, it’s one that I’ve always kept an eye out for on the home video formats. Now here it is, on American Region free Blu-ray – and looking far better than I could ever have hoped.
Released in 1965, the movie has a fantastic list of faces. There’s Stanley Baker - fresh from the success of ‘Zulu’, who also co-produced it with Cy Endfield - as Bain, a chain smoking, alcoholic mining engineer. Big American star Stuart Whitman who was wheeled in to guarantee overseas sales plays O’Brien, a businessman/ big game hunter. The eye candy was provided by Susannah York as Grace, a beautiful young divorcee – and I’d forgotten what a babe she was back in the 60’s. Harry Andrews plays Grimmelman, an elderly German gentleman, Theodore Bikel (who must have taken this part after failing to bag the role of Auric Goldfinger) as Doctor Bondrachai and the great Nigel Davenport as Sturdevan, captain of a plane – all add gravitas to the cast.
But enough enthusing about the cast list, what’s it all about? A group of passengers en route to Johannesburg have their flight delayed and elect to charter a plane to get them there quicker. The Pilot turns out to be none other than good old Nigel Davenport with a Dutch/ Seth Efricaan accent and soon they’re buzzing through the night sky only to be confronted by a cloud of flying locusts that appear from nowhere. Naturally they clog the vents and the plane is forced down, eventually crash landing – which kills the co-pilot, Detjens (Barry Lowe). Our group then wander around and take shelter in some caves, but not before they seriously upset a group of ferocious baboons. A war of nerves begins as O’Brien displays a survival instinct that involves cutting out the competition. Who will walk out of the desert alive and who will perish? Watch it and see.
This is a fairly old fashioned type of movie, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a good one. Certainly the pace is much slower than today’s MTV children are used to, but director Cy Endfield makes good use of the time to introduce us to the characters and to build up the tension. As desert plane crash movies go, there aren’t many big action scenes but I was reminded of the kind of conflict that was prevalent in the Jimmy Stewart version of ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ which was made at around the same time.
The characters are mostly stereotypes, but the performances aren’t half bad. Stuart Whitman is very credible as the loony O’Brien who becomes more self obsessed as the movie progresses. Susannah York looks quite lovely as the vulnerable blonde who throws herself at the male who looks most likely to survive from moment to moment. It was really great to see Harry Andrews on screen again. During the 60’s and 70’s he was one of those great British faces who always turned in a solid performance and was most probably one of the best character actors of that period. He’s kind of wasted here in a lesser role, but believable nonetheless. Stanley Baker was a big star on the ascent at the time and even though he was also the producer, his character comes across as relatively weak in comparison to Stuart Whitman’s more macho survivalist.
The film would have been a much bigger and more memorable affair had the original casting come to fruition. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were to have taken the two main male and female roles. Their presence would have guaranteed big box office returns and escalated the movie to a much higher plane. Sadly, it was not to be due to unclear reasons – maybe budget, maybe schedules – but the film would most likely have taken on a less realistic feel with them in it as the audience would have known they were watching two of Hollywood’s highest paid and most glamorous stars rather than the characters in the movie.
The desert photography is quite stunning in much the same way that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (come on Sony Pictures, we’ve waited long enough for it on Blu-ray) looked visually amazing. Erwin Hillier’s eye on the viewfinder provides us with beautifully composed ‘scope images that are full of impact and he has great faces to use in the close-ups of the cast.
The score was composed by John Dankworth and his main title theme conveys a feeling of the swinging 60’s but seems a strange choice for an African Desert adventure movie. I can’t help but think that the late great John Barry could have breathed more life into the production with its wide, sweeping vistas and tense conflict. Ah well, I suppose you can’t have everything.
As it stands, ‘Sands of the Kalihari’ is a good night at the movies for anyone who wants a well told story and has the patience to let it unfold before their eyes. Just watch out for those toothy baboons!
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