Sands of the Kalahari

Movies about survival in the wild are always a little hard for me to take.  Probably because throughout the movie one thought keeps going through my mind…”I’d be dead.”  No question…if that happened to me, I’m a goner.  If trapped on a desert island and forced to hunt for my own food, Wilson the Volleyball would bag more critters than I would.  In the movie “Alive,” I would be  the guy served for lunch.  Heck, I freak out if there’s more than 10 miles between exits on the interstate driving across Nebraska.   So the 1965 film “Sands of the Kalahari” definitely represents a worst case scenario for me.

The film begins when a flight to Johannesburg is delayed, forcing the passengers to be put up in hotels for the night.  But a small group of them get together to charter a small plane to complete their journey.  While flying over the desert, they encounter a huge swarm of locusts which end up splattered all over the plane…oddly enough, somewhat reminiscent of what my car looks like after the previously mentioned interstate trips through Nebraska.  The plane ends up crashing in the desert leaving 6 survivors…5 men and one woman.

The film does not spend a whole lot of time on character development early on.  You have O’Brien, the manly man with the gun (Stuart Whitman)…Bain, the injured guy (Stanley Baker)…Sturdevan, the slimey pilot (Nigel Davenport)…awkward Dr. Bondrachi (Theordore Bikel)…Elderly Grimmelman, who knows the ways of the Bushman (Harry Andrews)…and, of course, Grace, the hot chick (Susannah York).  At first, the characters seemed very flat.  I would think that five strangers stranded in the desert would spend a bit of time talking about the lives they have left behind, but there is little of this.  This is one of the few aspects of the film that falls short.

The survivors set up camp in a rocky area inhabited by a group of baboons.  There is shelter, fresh water, and food in the form of the melons the baboons eat.  The chronically shirtless O’Brien fancies himself a hunter, and since his riffle also survived the crash, he begins killing off the baboons so the survivors can claim more of the food for themselves.  He begins hunting game for meat as well.  But the gun also begins to make O’Brien power hungry.  He begins by claiming the hot chick for himself, though to be fair, she pretty much throws herself at him upon sight of his hairy chest.  Then, O’Brien begins to look for ways of eliminating the other survivors.  Just like the baboons, he begins to see them as a drain on the limited food supply.  It takes the now healed Bain to eventually stand up to O’Brien in a tense fight sequence.

There’s something great about characters that you love to hate, and Whitman’s performance definitely puts O’Brien in that category.  The first time he is sent out by the group to hunt for foot, he quickly sheds his shirt…and he doesn’t wear it again for the rest of the film.  He seems to want to become a wild man, living off the land…yet he is really nothing without his gun.  He literally sleeps with the thing!  The whole second half of the film I was anxious for someone to snatch his boom stick away from him and point it right at his hairy chest.

In the end, the film is very enjoyable.  The first half is slow and suffers from lack of character development, though some great cinematography helps make up for it.  It’s pretty amazing how a supposedly barren desert landscape can be made so visually spectacular in the hands of a skilled cinematographer.  But it’s the second half of the film that makes the film a winner.  The story turns exciting, suspenseful, and delivers a unique ending.  I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a payoff for all those shots of growling baboons throughout the rest of the film…plus, it is filmed in a way that allows the viewer to imagine two very different, but equally bizarre outcomes.

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