The flight to Johannesburg has been delayed, and Mrs Grace Munkton (Susannah York) is forced to stay in a hotel for the night until the travel arrangements can get their act together. However, just as she steps out of the shower and is preparing for bed, there is a knock at the door; two of the men she recognises from the airport are there with a suggestion. How about they charter a light aircraft to take them to their destination? Grace agrees, and is soon flying through the dawn along with five other passengers - but then disaster strikes!
They're going down! They've hit a huge swarm of locusts which have jammed the engines and made the plane plunge into the desert below! What will the passengers do now? Well, they'll be late for getting to Johannesburg for a start, but more importantly they must survive in this hostile landscape until help arrives, if indeed it ever does because they are in a very remote location. If this is sounding familiar, it's due to an unfortunate coincidence of timing, for 1965 was the year the similar Flight of the Phoenix was released and became a hit across the world, a success which lasts to this day among its cultists.
Sands of the Kalahari on the other hand is a far more obscure movie, as it was overshadowed by the James Stewart favourite and didn't make a massive amount of money, or impact, at the time. For those who did see it, there were some who dismissed it as hysterical, but for others who appreciated its overstatement and its themes of the descent into savagery as the proximity of harsh nature takes its toll, this was a gem. With an ensemble cast which rose to the challenges the script demanded of them, and a very particular atmosphere of threat and gradually simmering, impending violence all under the baking hot sun, it's not surprising that some responded to the characters' struggles to stay civilised.
That script was drawn from a novel by William Mulvihill by the director Cy Endfield, a fascinating chap who could count inventor and magician as two of the other strings to his bow. His best known film was the one which came before this one, Zulu, a megahit which demonstrated his skill and sense of the epic along with his keen observation of humanity, and with his frequent producing partner Stanley Baker, who had starred in many of their collaborations along with this one, set out to make muscular movies which with any luck would strike gold at the box office. That happened with Zulu, but not here, and the failure of this and his subsequent projects led Endfield to retire from the movie business.
Which was a shame when you recognise the quality of this, and the manner in which the characters' enforced brutality made for absorbing melodrama. Some of the survivors embrace that more fully than others, and it's Stuart Whitman in a terrific performance as O'Brien who finds himself in his element, shooting baboons, hunting, bullying the others in increasingly unsubtle ways, and strutting about with his chest bared as if to prove his alpha male qualities. Grace is entranced, certainly more so when the pilot (Nigel Davenport) tries to rape her, and she becomes a kind of trophy for O'Brien even as Baker's injured alcoholic Bain twigs what he's up to. Filling out that cast were intellectual Harry Andrews who makes the inevitable Nazi reference, and Theodore Bikel as the dead weight O'Brien rounds on, but all made an impression in a plot that may have been more deliberately paced than it needed to be, but placed social dynamics under the movie equivalent of an electron microscope and drew some grim conclusions. That striking ending, as the baboons reassert themselves, was not easily forgotten. Music by Johnny Dankworth.