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Sands of the Kalahari (DVD Review)

1 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/2/11
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Stanley Baker, Stuart Whitman, Susannah York, Harry Andrews.

Generally devalued as a lesser cousin of two tangentially related movies of the same era, Paramount’s action melodrama of desert peril from late ’65 contained at least three things that disturbed me as a teenager when I saw it at the time. One was the cave-dwelling scorpion that crawled up the arm of co-producer/lead Stanley Baker; also the distinguished cast of marauding baboons who, had they an adequate dental plan, would have found their dentist telling them they had an intimidating saliva count; plus the meagerly clad blondeness of Susannah York, a mere two years post-Tom Jones, getting hot (or, as we male teens put it then, “all hot”) in ways that went beyond climate.

This was all enough to engender the not-bad drive-in experience that Sands still is to this day — even though there is that failure to compete too forcibly with those two movies mentioned earlier. The first was 1964’s Zulu, which Baker had previously co-produced with its director: Sands’ Cy Endfield. If anything, it has a better reputation today than then, thanks at least a little to its availability on a gorgeous all-Region British Blu-ray. The second is The Flight of the Phoenix, a rival desert plane-crash saga that opened just a month-and-change later — a classic that’s still such a hallmark achievement of director Robert Aldrich’s uneven but (at best) extraordinarily rich career that Fox felt compelled to mount a cruddy 2004 remake.

Still, as a drama about the moral limitations of social Darwinism, Sands has its provocative moments — though I’ve never figured out, unless it was producer’s prerogative, how Baker got top-billed over Stuart Whitman here, at least in the on-screen credits. Whitman is really the film’s focus and was the bigger name at the time, having gotten a best actor Oscar nomination for 1961’s The Mark and been all but a co-equal with John Wayne in The Comancheros. Maybe it was because Whitman was playing the movie’s villain — and, like Robert Mitchum in the original Cape Fear, an intimidating one in super physical shape. Whitman looks as if he’d been regularly visiting the studio weight rooms between takes over the years, which is probably what anyone would do when bored out of his or her mind filming the likes of Francis of Assisi or Shock Treatment.

Sands centers on nature’s downing of a two-engine job that has been chartered after a regular commercial flight was delayed: There’s nothing like running into a five-mile swath of locusts. This is no hyperbole — it’s what the pilot, in fact, claims — resulting in the worst windshield wiper gunk you’ll ever see, a shot I’ve never forgotten after all these years. Post-crash, just about every survivor in the otherwise exclusively male pilot/passenger list gets, uh, bothered by York — whose character’s unelaborated upon “Mrs.” designation somehow makes her sound a little patrician despite the fact that there’s no logical reason it should. Earlier, Endfield has given us a fairly gratuitous oh-Susannah shower scene back at the hotel to show us what’s at stake, which actually means that maybe the scene isn’t gratuitous.

Whitman, meanwhile, is playing the kind of guy commonly referred to by a rude hyphenated word whose first half is “swing.” Thus, he ends up getting the inside track with a woman who isn’t on the make but simply confused, bringing up to mind that Brit hit from the previous year: “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” by Patty & the Emblems. Whitman also owns the survivor unit’s only rifle, which facilitates the ability to self-elect himself its leader — a decision wearily acquiesced to, though Baker’s character would have be in a better position to raise some ruckus if he didn’t have a little problem with the sauce.

So what’s the fallout? Whitman sends a doctor played by Theodore Bikel (no Tarzan he) out on a suicide mission, and the chances of the ankle-ing it pilot (Nigel Davenport) to find help are about as unlikely to succeed. Meanwhile, Whitman is doing a splendid job of really hacking off the baboons, and you just know that word is buzzing through their tight community that someday they’re going to see that this guy gets his. His character remains somewhat elusive — a little too much so — but the Panavision is easy on the eye, and the story ends with one of the more memorable (and certainly uncompromised) endings from any movie of the era.

If this isn’t enough, there’s also some cool stuff involving water preservation via giant eggshells — not enough, to be sure, to top James Stewart and Hardy Kruger getting underneath each other’s skins in Phoenix but probably enough to compel fanciers of raw outdoor adventures. This definitely is one — and if Paramount bookers were on the ball in the mid-‘60s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kalahari eventually played in second-run engagements with Cornel Wilde’s even more brutal The Naked Prey from the following year.

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