Sands of the Kalahari (1965)
“The fantastic adventure of survival in the desert”
Director: Cy Endfield
Cast: Stuart Whitman, Stanley Baker, Susannah York
Synopsis: A small airplane crashes in the sweltering deserts of southern Africa hundreds of miles from civilization.
A year after fending off a horde of Zulu natives, the production team of Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker headed back to Africa, this time to film Sands of the Kalahari, in which the rapid dissolution of civilised society’s codes of conduct amongst a group of plane crash survivors who find themselves stranded in the Kalahari Desert with just a pack of vicious wild baboons for company is chronicled with ruthless clarity of purpose. Unfortunately for Endfield and Baker, Sands of the Kalahari was released around the same time as the all-star Hollywood blockbuster The Flight of the Phoenix, and never really received the acclaim it deserved. It’s a shame, because Endfield’s movie is far superior.
Sands of the Kalahari follows a group of travellers who take the fateful decision of renting a small private plane to transport them for the rest of their journey when the commercial flight they were on develops problems. They’re the usual mixed bunch; the blunt pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport — Charley One-Eye) is a native South African who initially assumes command of the group once his plane is forced down after flying into a swarm of locusts, Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) is a philanthropic UN official,
WWII veteran Grimmelman (Harry Andrews — The Black Knight, A Touch of Larceny), is the wise and intellectual older man of the party, Mike Bain (Stanley Baker — Zulu is a morose, alcoholic mining engineer, and Grace Munkton (Susannah York) is an attractive British divorcee. A late addition to this group is Brian O’Brien (Stuart Whitman — The White Buffalo), a macho big game hunter with a worrying attachment to his high-powered rifle.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, group survival is the priority, but their immediate future is a little more secure after setting up camp in a rocky valley, and it’s not long before those social codes begin to erode. With what seems like unseemly haste, Sturdevan tries to rape Grace, only to be eventually deterred when her fearful, abject submission triggers in him an attack of self-loathing, while O’Brien’s initial pre-occupation with finding enough food for the group as a whole and eliminating the pack of baboons whom he looks upon as competition, takes on an altogether more sinister aspect when he begins to realise that there’s an inadequate supply of food to sustain all the survivors…
The frightening thing about O’Brien is that he possesses all the attributes that we as a society have been taught to admire. He’s young, strong, virile and resourceful; he can control his fear and will do whatever is necessary to survive. O’Brien’s explanation at gunpoint to Bondrachai as to why he has selected him to follow Sturdevan (who went voluntarily) into the desert to seek help is nothing but the expression of cold, hard logic and is, from an objective point of view at least, inarguably correct. It’s also a scene of immense power, in which O’Brien’s monstrous sense of self-preservation is laid bare. Those qualities civilised society admires are the very things that precipitate its downfall when rules and infrastructure are suddenly stripped away…
Whitman gives a compelling performance as O’Brien, maintaining enough traces of rationality and reasonableness once the survival instinct kicks in to easily fool those who blindly believe in the natural order of things even in extraordinary circumstances. Conversely, the character of Grace Munckton, whether by design or accident, has to be one of the most weak, vacillating and annoying ever to appear on celluloid. She greets Sturnevad’s ultimately aborted attempt at sexual dominance with complete capitulation, almost as if she accepts his assault upon her as the price she must pay in order to obtain security. Then, like an abandoned puppy, she makes an obvious play for O’Brien after Sturnevad has turned from her in disgust,. Even in an age when the fight for female equality was in its infancy, her inability to contemplate survival in her new surroundings without essentially becoming the property of a man really strains credibility.
Sands of the Kalahari was shot on location in Namibia and benefits from some spectacular photography beneath a flawless blue sky by Erwin Hillier, and from its use of real baboons in their natural surroundings. Never did baboons look as vicious as they do here, and by Sands of the Kalahari’s end they provide a fitting adversary as the movie follows its study of man’s reversion to his primitive state to its logical — but no less stunning — conclusion. The final scene is deliberately ambiguous, and either reading of it is equally haunting. It seems incredible, given its many strengths and minor weaknesses, that Sands of the Kalahari isn’t both better known and afforded more commendations than it has received to date. This is one movie that really does deserve to be called a classic.
(Reviewed 22nd April 2014)