Vintage Violence: Sands of the Kalahari (1965) and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976)

A baboon and Santa Claus are witnesses to man’s descent into savagery. In Sands of the Kalahari (1965, out on DVD today from Olive Films), a charter plane crashes in the African desert, and its passengers battle each other (and some observant simians) for survival. Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, a recent Raro Video DVD release)  finds a couple of pretty boy Dirty Harries gunning down suspects before they have time to commit crimes. Poor Old St. Nick can only grin and bear these assaults on individual freedom. Both films display the brutalizing depths wisecracking civilized types can descend to when they feel above or outside the law.

After the international success of Zulu (1964), director Cy Endfield and actor/producer Stanley Baker reunited in South Africa for Sands of the Kalahari. Endfield, born in Scranton, PA,  had been working in the UK for over a decade after being declared a former Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I discussed his second-to-last Hollywood film, the inflammatory noir The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me), back in February. He used a variety of pseudonyms in the years after he was put on the blacklist, since British producers still wanted U.S. distribution. For more info on Endfield’s life and career, read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s great duo of articles on the director now posted on his blog.

Endfield (credited as Charles de la Tour) first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956), a family drama adapted from the novel by Janet McNeill. They hit it off, and returned with Hell Drivers (where Endfield used his real name for the first time), a taut trucking adventure that established the fatalistic tone of their future collaborations. They continued to elaborate their interest in self-destruction in the thrillers Sea Fury (1958) and Jet Storm (1959) before hitting it big on Zulu.

Like Jet Storm (set on a plane in which a grief-stricken passenger (Richard Attenborough) intends to blow himself up) and Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari contends with a small group grappling with the prospect of  imminent death. The story was adapted by Endfield from William Mulvihill’s novel of the same name. When a commercial flight is canceled at a Johannesburg airport, a few of the international travelers charter their own plane out: there is the fadingly charismatic pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport); the unfailingly logical, and vaguely Eastern European Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel); ex-German soldier and monkey lover Grimmelman (Harry Andrews); professional British lady Grace Munkton (Susannah York); functioning alcoholic Bain (Stanley Baker); and the immediately shirtless big-game hunter O’Brien (Stuart Whitman).

The plane runs into a swarm of locusts and crashes into the dunes of the Kalahari desert. After the junky jet explodes, the group is stranded in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth, with sharp-toothed monkeys monitoring their every move. O’Brien sheds his shirt and takes over, and slowly goes mad Heart of Darkness style, growing obsessed with the absolute power he can maintain in this exotic outpost of humanity. Ms. Munkton swoons over his rippling pectorals, but the other passengers aren’t so impressed, and get picked off one by one. What O’Brien ultimately wants is to dominate nature itself, and when humanity fails to pose a challenge, he opts to wage a war against the baboons.

Endfield takes full advantage of the Panavision frame, using the early urban sequences for centered compositions filled with background action, while the desert sections are unbalanced and emptied out. The opening is in medium-shot, while the desert sequences are in long-shot. As the enormity of their situation dawns upon his characters, Endfield pulls further away. It is a nasty little picture, attuned to the brutality of the scenario more than others of its ilk, including the (quite good) Five Came Back (1939, dir. John Farrow), Desperate Search (1950, dir. Joseph H. Lewis), and Flight of the Phoenix (1965, dir. Robert Aldrich). Endfield said, “The only way to do it was to show the essentialism of survival, which was impossible given censorship rules. Otherwise it seems like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” (from Brian Neve’s career spanning interview, available as a PDF here. Thanks to Glenn Erickson for linking to this great piece in his DVD review at TCM.com).

I shudder to think what an uncensored Sands of the Kalahari would look like, because this is pretty raw material. In one queasy sequence, the remaining men club a wounded impala to death with stones, as Endfield frames them in rare close-up with maniacal grimaces on their faces. In another, O’Brien guns down baboons from their mountainside dwellings, and their corpses fall to the ground like a mealy potatoes.

The main conflict is between O’Brien’s hyper-macho Darwinism and the other men’s reluctant egalitarianism. There is no true competitor, as the Doctor is a coward, the German resorts to the violence he disdains, and Bain is brave but a bit of a dolt. Endfield clearly agrees with the milquetoasts, but is fascinated by O’Brien’s animality. Shunning escape, he chooses to live alone in the desert, growing a patchy beard and awaiting the showdown with the primates whose homeland he has invaded. This final battle is gruesome and short, and in the end Endfield pulls away in his longest long shot, until O’Brien is just another dot on the landscape. Nature, as ever, is unperturbed.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man does not exhibit that kind of formal control, but its tilt-a-whirl frenzy holds its own insane appeal. Directed by Italian exploitation specialist Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), it’s a near plot-less exercise in gonzo action sequences. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – who also sings the Dylan-esque theme song) are model-handsome cops spearheading a special operations force in Rome. These two grinning sociopaths gleefully snap necks of suspects who survive their chases, and resort to torture for small bits of information. They are the exploitation version of Dirty Harry, who at least had motivation for his sundering of the law. These two are simply insane, although they go about it in an amiable cop show manner, as if CSI: Miami’s David Caruso just started choking out schlubs in the interrogation room.

Without characterization or narrative to speak of, the juice here is in the location shooting of the action scenes, which deliver wildly dangerous stunts on the streets of Rome, often shot without permits. The stunner is the opening motorcycle chase, an epic jaunt through the Via del Corso that weaves through traffic, crashes through cafes, thunders on top of cars, and scares an old blind man. Interspersing camera mounted cycle shots with the death-defying stunt-riders, it’s a full kinesthetic assault that matches its other model, The French Connection (1971), for white-knuckle realism. When the action scenes end, it’s just another campy exploitation movie, but when the cameraman hits the ground running once more, it’s wise to start paying attention.

21 Responses Vintage Violence: Sands of the Kalahari (1965) and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976)
Posted By Juana Maria : August 2, 2011 10:32 am

I never even heard of these before.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 2, 2011 10:32 am

I never even heard of these before.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : August 3, 2011 8:12 am

“Sands of the Kalahari” was a staple of our movie library at KTLA back in the late ’70s and mid’80s — distributed by Avco Embassy, as I recall (whatever happened to that company, swallowed up by something, no doubt!). It used to perform well, as did many male-oriented action movies at that time, before comedies started to be the primary draw, even against primetime network offerings. I mean…Stuart Whitman! There’s a name you don’t see above the title much, though TV fans may remember him from his 90-minute “Cimarron Strip” TV show. To me he was part of the actor niche also inhabited by David Janssen — taciturn, masculine. Seemed more TV than movies.

What viewers loved were the baboons! Me, too! Creepy bastards, aren’t they?

Thanks for reminding me of the title!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : August 3, 2011 8:12 am

“Sands of the Kalahari” was a staple of our movie library at KTLA back in the late ’70s and mid’80s — distributed by Avco Embassy, as I recall (whatever happened to that company, swallowed up by something, no doubt!). It used to perform well, as did many male-oriented action movies at that time, before comedies started to be the primary draw, even against primetime network offerings. I mean…Stuart Whitman! There’s a name you don’t see above the title much, though TV fans may remember him from his 90-minute “Cimarron Strip” TV show. To me he was part of the actor niche also inhabited by David Janssen — taciturn, masculine. Seemed more TV than movies.

What viewers loved were the baboons! Me, too! Creepy bastards, aren’t they?

Thanks for reminding me of the title!

Posted By suzidoll : August 3, 2011 5:46 pm

I know a bit about Cy Endfield, but I have not seen Sands of the Kalahari, and have not heard of Live Like a Cop…. However, I am definitely intrigued by their 70s vibe.

Posted By suzidoll : August 3, 2011 5:46 pm

I know a bit about Cy Endfield, but I have not seen Sands of the Kalahari, and have not heard of Live Like a Cop…. However, I am definitely intrigued by their 70s vibe.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 3, 2011 8:12 pm

I love Zulu so much but I’ve never given other Endfield films a look. I love the way he takes the widescreen of Zulu and brings it in during the siege for the scaling of the walls and the assault on the infirmary but brings it out before to give a sense of facing an overwhelming opponent. Judging from this piece, he uses the same expertise behind the camera here. I’m definitely going to give this a look.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 3, 2011 8:12 pm

I love Zulu so much but I’ve never given other Endfield films a look. I love the way he takes the widescreen of Zulu and brings it in during the siege for the scaling of the walls and the assault on the infirmary but brings it out before to give a sense of facing an overwhelming opponent. Judging from this piece, he uses the same expertise behind the camera here. I’m definitely going to give this a look.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2011 12:17 pm

I really want to see Sands of the Kalahari now. It sounds sligtly awesome.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2011 12:17 pm

I really want to see Sands of the Kalahari now. It sounds sligtly awesome.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2011 12:17 pm

“slightly”.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2011 12:17 pm

“slightly”.

Posted By franko : August 4, 2011 6:04 pm

I saw Sands of the Kalahari as a kid when it played at the local theater (yes, I’m *that* old). It had a profound impact on me, and I couldn’t wait for our annual summer trip to the beach so I could go out into the sand dunes and pretend I was lost in the Kalahari battling vicious simians. It had some other weird effect on me, something besides the action stuff – it was one of those movies that actually made me *think*. Thanks for reminding me . . .

Posted By franko : August 4, 2011 6:04 pm

I saw Sands of the Kalahari as a kid when it played at the local theater (yes, I’m *that* old). It had a profound impact on me, and I couldn’t wait for our annual summer trip to the beach so I could go out into the sand dunes and pretend I was lost in the Kalahari battling vicious simians. It had some other weird effect on me, something besides the action stuff – it was one of those movies that actually made me *think*. Thanks for reminding me . . .

Posted By Juana Maria : August 4, 2011 6:17 pm

I have watched nature programs with baboons and other apes and primates. They are mean!! They “kill” even mannnequin things that the scientists put out in the field. Then there is this film with Ron Perlman called “Primal Fear”(Syfy channel orginal movie). I think Ron Perlman looks like a baboon, not to insult the actor but hey maybe he will be in a “Planet of the Apes” film. They keep cranking those out don’t they?

Posted By Juana Maria : August 4, 2011 6:17 pm

I have watched nature programs with baboons and other apes and primates. They are mean!! They “kill” even mannnequin things that the scientists put out in the field. Then there is this film with Ron Perlman called “Primal Fear”(Syfy channel orginal movie). I think Ron Perlman looks like a baboon, not to insult the actor but hey maybe he will be in a “Planet of the Apes” film. They keep cranking those out don’t they?

Posted By Jenni : August 6, 2011 8:24 pm

Also saw and loved Zulu, so I am pretty intrigued to find Sands of the Kalahari. The Italian movie, with no seeming plot, other than psycho crazed cops killing folks? I’ll pass on that one.

Posted By Jenni : August 6, 2011 8:24 pm

Also saw and loved Zulu, so I am pretty intrigued to find Sands of the Kalahari. The Italian movie, with no seeming plot, other than psycho crazed cops killing folks? I’ll pass on that one.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Battle Lines: Zulu (1964) : February 18, 2014 3:31 pm

[…] cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around […]

Posted By Ben Martin : February 18, 2014 3:43 pm

This post came way before I started following Movie Morlocks – otherwise i would have commented sooner. I saw the film as a kid also – on TV – and it rocked me socked me knocked me out. When Warners Home Archive released it, i snatched it up. Scanned, panned and cut for commercial television – funny isnt it – it still had punch.
Its funny = as a ten year old i remember distinctly the baboons walking toward Stuart Whitman at the very end – the breathtaking final shot you mention above. And I thought they were coming to him with respect as their new leader. Man has become savage enough that at last they look to him as one of their own. I found it chilling. Watching it again, finally, recently, the shot doesn’t give me that anymore, and is over much faster than i remember. It’s very curious to me the vibe i got from this as a young innocent vs that of a seasoned movie watcher. .

Posted By Michael : January 23, 2015 3:46 am

If you liked this Cy Endfield movie, Check out another of his called “Mysterious Island”. An excellent sci-fi based on the Jules Verne book. Excellent Ray Harryhausen effects. Endfield always did get the best from his actors. And yes, Endfield was without doubt a Communist of long standing.

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