Snapshots: Dark of the Sun

Receiving rare items is a sure-fire spark for a treasure hunt.

The rarities this time came in the form of snapshots taken in Jamaica during the filming of “Dark in the Sun” in 1967.

  • Rod Taylor on location
  • Yvette Mimieux behind the scenes
  • Crew surrounding the stars of Dark of the Sun
  • Snapshot of Dark of the Sun filming
  • Photo of Yvette Mimieux and Rod Taylor
  • Dark of the Sun screen capture

“The photos were taken by my Dad when we lived in Irish Town, Jamaica,” Michelle Holland wrote to me recently. You can see four of the snapshots she sent in the gallery above, along with screenshots from “Dark of the Sun” that provide a glimpse at what was actually filmed at that location.

“I remember that the film crew was on our private road. It was no more than a one-vehicle-wide dirt road. Two vehicles could not pass.” Their property was located off the main road that led up from Kingston toward Newcastle.

Michelle explained that one day, “My Dad and Mom loaded my brother and me up into the back of our Volkswagen pickup van [another rarity!] and we stood on the back and watched the filming.”

Her father, Charles V. Ogilvie, captured photos of the stars strolling by and the crew working on scene set-ups. “I actually recall seeing Yvette Mimieux, as she was stunning,” said Michelle, who was 11 or 12 at the time. “I wish I had paid more attention, but I was a little kid then.”

Credit to Jamaica

Receiving these snapshots inspired me to take a further tour of Jamaica, which stood in for the Congo in “Dark of the Sun.” The plot involved mercenaries on a mission to rescue refugees (and seize diamonds) during the early 1960s civil war in the Belgian Congo. The subject matter proved to be too hot for African nations to handle at the time, leading producer George Englund on a search for a suitable substitute. His checklist included tropical scenery and access to a steam train.

Jamaica fit the bill. With about 40 percent of the film taking place on a train, the Caribbean nation’s retired but revered steam engine No. 54 rode to the rescue.

Thus, in mid-January 1967 Rod Taylor and company arrived for three months of filming on location in Jamaica. In mid-April, production moved to MGM studios in London for interior scenes.

Jamaican newspaper writers were excited to see previews of the film in early 1968, and they predicted that local viewers would enjoy spotting familiar actors and extras. However, despite being dazzled by the way the landscape was photographed so beautifully, they were crushed that the film credits made no mention of Jamaica or the contributions of its citizens.

The trains used in “Dark of the Sun” are a story for another day, but you can get a sense of their glory and other aspects about the film from this this Feb. 17, 1968, column in the Kingston Daily Gleaner. There’s also a DVD about Jamaican Railways that includes behind-the-scenes footage from “Dark of the Sun.”

Filming on track

Filming for “Dark of the Sun” started Jan. 16, 1967, near Port Royal at the old Palisadoes Airport (now Norman Manley International).  A diner was converted into the airfield terminal where the mercenaries (Rod Taylor as Curry and Jim Brown as Ruffo) arrive for their Congo expedition. The scene included hundreds of extras and several local actors.

In a report for the Kingston newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, writer Harry Milner provided the extras’ point of view. His article titled “On the set” (Jan. 22, 1967) described the “hurry up and wait” experience of filmmaking:

“The scene to be shot dealt with refugees at a small airport in the Congo waiting for a plane to arrive. Method technique was used on the first day to get the extras in the right mood [to portray refugees]. They were kept sitting on their suitcases in the sun for some two hours before the filming began! And certainly by the end of the 10-hour working day they all looked very much like the real thing.”

After the airport scenes, filming began in Kingston, with portions of the city getting a new look as business and street signs were blocked out and replaced by signs in French to give the appearance of a city in the Congo.

Two days of filming took place at the home of Abe Issa, a local businessman who was acclaimed as the “father of Jamaican tourism” and who was a key leader in the nation’s economic development after independence in 1962.

Issa’s home, with its colonial architecture and formidable white columns, stood in for the palace of the Congo president, Mwamini Ubi, played by Calvin Lockhart. Most of the filming was done on the east verandah and lunch tents were set up on the lawns for the crew. The famous Hope Gardens in Kingston also represented the president’s estate.

Then filming really got on track, literally, as the production moved to the Jamaica Railway Corporation train yards and continued for about a month in and around Kingston. Members of the Jamaican Defence Force portrayed Congolese soldiers throughout the movie.

Shots of the train were captured at a key junction, May Pen. Then, filming moved up the Frankfield line, near Suttons. The famous chainsaw fight was filmed there, in a day-for-night scene.

In mid-February, production headquarters moved to Port Maria on the north coast for at least six weeks of shooting. The northeast coastal town of Port Antonio provided access to jungles, mountains and waterfalls, which played a large role in the climactic chase and fight scene.

Filming continued to take place in towns along the railway lines, including Albany and Richmond in St. Mary Parish. Albany was the location for Msapa Junction, where Curry, Ruffo & Co. stop to use the communications set-up and also encounter a couple of children.

Richmond stood in for Port Reprieve, where the refugees were located. A local retail/wholesale business establishment owned by Samuel Kong was used as the exterior of the hotel where Curry and Ruffo have to go to retrieve the diamonds. The Kong family still own the building, which is an automotive supply shop.

And a house 5,000 feet up in a remote corner of the Blue Mountain range was revamped with Gothic church windows and an 8-foot cross mounted on the roof. This served as the mission where Dr. Wreid (actor Kenneth More) helped a pregnant woman.

For a few more behind-the-scenes items from “Dark of the Sun,” read the item posted on May 2, 2020.

Tidbits: Dark of the Sun

I’m working on a post with behind-the-scenes snapshots taken at a location in Jamaica during “Dark of the Sun.” But in researching information about the production of that movie, I found a few entertaining items that I thought I’d share while I’m pulling the other material together.

Flying lessons

For about a month, Rod Taylor took a helicopter from Kingston to a remote location on the north shore of Jamaica. Always one for adventure, he took advantage of the situation by taking flying lessons. He got his learner’s permit and the pilot installed dual controls.

“Apparently I have to do eight hours dual flying and 40 to qualify,” Rod was quoted in a newspaper article March 30, 1967. “The only drawback I can see is that once I get the license I’ll probably go out and buy a chopper … and that’s an expensive drawback!”

No Coward

Producer George Englund tried to get Noel Coward to make a cameo appearance in “Dark of the Sun,” as the witty actor/writer had retired to the island. Coward declined the cameo, but he did serve as master of ceremonies at a lavish birthday bash for one of the actors at the Casa Maria Hotel, just 10 minutes from his estate in Port Maria.

One Hollywood columnist called it the “swingingest party of the Jamaica season.” It was hosted by Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux and Jim Brown to celebrate the 25th birthday of their co-star, French actor-singer Olivier Despax. Apparently it also included Playboy bunnies teaching guests to dance to ska music, a precursor to reggae. (Dorothy Manners column, March 10, 1967.)

Private Island

Rod Taylor liked Jamaica so much that he had his business manager fly in to close a deal on a resort hotel and apartment house he purchased there. He later traded the properties for an island where he and two partners planned to build a resort hotel and golf course.

Knee Knockout

The filming of “Dark of the Sun” was riddled with accidents, injuries and near-misses. One significant incident happened when Rod vetoed the use of a stunt man for a jump from a balcony into a jeep. The jeep moved too soon and “I took the full weight of my body on one knee,” Rod said.  “I felt the tendons tear. The pain was excruciating.” A doctor prescribed surgery and a six-week rest. Rod vetoed that, too. Three days later, he was back on the set, fortified with a tight bandage and pain-killing injections. (Miami Herald, June 23, 1968.)

Unkind Cuts

“Dark of the Sun” was shown to Jamaican audiences in a special preview in April 1968, but its official world premiere was held in Chicago in June of that year. Rod attended with Yvette Mimieux.

Yvette had her own share of injuries during filming. One scary misfire happened during a scene that calls for her to jump aboard a moving train. She slipped, and wadding from a blank rifle shell cut a deep gash in her forearm. She was back on set the next day, however.

In an interview after filming was wrapped, Rod called Yvette a “beautiful, frail little thing, with lots of pluck.” (Pittsburgh Press, Aug. 27, 1967.) But apparently she had been miscast. “Her role called for a lusty, earthy quality; needed some woman like Ava Gardner,” Rod said. The script was rewritten to suit Yvette, but further changes were made in editing.

By the time the film premiered, romantic scenes between Rod and Yvette had been eliminated. Rod lamented to an interviewer: “Poor Yvette. She worked so hard every day and her part’s been cut way down.” (Fort Lauderdale News, June 22, 1968.)

‘King of the Coral Sea’ interview

A treasure arrived in my email this week! Thanks to a gentleman in Australia, we can now travel back in time and listen to 24-year-old Rod Taylor speak about his first major motion picture role in “King of the Coral Sea.”

The audio recording was done in advance of the film’s release in September 1954. It’s sort of a one-sided conversation: You hear Rod and director Lee Robinson give answers, but you don’t hear the questions. The recording was distributed to radio stations along with a script that allowed local broadcasters to serve as the interviewers. Although there’s no record of the questions asked, you can guess from the context pretty well.

Here is the interview, via YouTube. I edited out the long pauses (where the interview questions would have been) and added some still images and video clips from the movie’s promotional material — just to provide some visual interest. Many thanks to Bill Ayres who shared this audio gem from his collection. Keep scrolling below for more insights.

What accent?

Lee Robinson provides the first answer, then Rod comes on. He describes his role in “King of the Coral Sea” as “an American ex-GI who settles in the islands” and notes — with a Yankee twang — that “I’ve sort of specialized in American accents on radio.”

Indeed he did, and throughout his Hollywood film career he often called himself a “phony American” because of this very talent. But his rather British voice in the interview is somewhat of a put-on too.

I often get asked if Rod uses his “real” voice in his role as an Australian in “The VIPs.” In that movie, his Aussie accent is probably a bit of an exaggeration because director Anthony Asquith asked Rod to play up Australian phrases and mannerisms.

Rod’s manner of speech has had many influences, from his family life and his professional training.

Author Stephen Vagg pointed out in “Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches” that at the time Rod began working, Australian actors were influenced by British styles of performance. Case in point: Rod repeatedly cites Laurence Olivier as being his inspiration to pursue acting. Moreover, Rod chose to use the more British-sounding “Rodney” as his acting credit in his early days.

Rod’s early recorded voice exudes the “cultured, smooth-sounding tones that attempted to hide any Australian inflections,” Vagg wrote. He also noted that Rod’s speaking voice had an even earlier divided influence: He was raised in a household featuring a refined English mother and a rugged Australian father.

Rod, with his father and mother in the 1960s.

His dad was a big influence in a much later role — that of Daddy-o in 1994’s “Welcome to Woop Woop.” Regarding his broad Aussie accent and attitudes in that movie, Rod said, “That was my father.”

Building character

Back to the 1954 interview… The missing question likely asked Rod whether he preferred radio or film work. Rod says that he enjoyed the film work because it gave him an opportunity to concentrate on one role.

In another interview promoting “King of the Coral Sea” (ABC Weekly, Nov. 28, 1953), Rod expressed a similar sentiment in regard to radio, stating a preference for sustained character work. At the time he was playing Paddy Carmody, the lead role in a Sunday night serial, “Sundowners.” (That’s the role Robert Mitchum had in the 1960 film version.) In his earlier work, he raced around from station to station recording radio plays and guest roles.

Dangerous business

In the interview, Robinson relates that no stuntmen or doubles were used during “King of the Coral Sea.” Although Rod did not have any of the scuba scenes, he still experienced some dangerous diving moments off camera. He said when he first tried the diving gear, “I turned the wrong valve and got water instead of air.”

He confessed to another misadventure when he was “crayfishing between scenes.” He saw a dark shape below him in the water. Fortunately, it wasn’t a shark but a quick-thinking swimmer who spared him from landing on a giant sting ray!

Planning and punches

In discussing the business of movie-making, Robinson described the long process that went into creating “King of the Coral Sea.”

“There’s about six months’ work to plan and prepare the production,” he said. “Five and a half weeks shooting at Thursday Island for the main story. About two months at Green Island on the Barrier Reef filming underwater shots.”

All that for a movie that’s about an hour and a half.

That compression prompted Rod to talk about a fight scene in the film. He lamented, “We were two months planning it, two weeks rehearsing it, two days filming it, and it lasts about two minutes on the screen.”

Rod Taylor and Lloyd Berrell, before the fight

The filmed fisticuffs between Rod and Lloyd Berrell took place in waist-deep water, which posed more of a hazard than you might imagine. ABC Weekly (Sept. 12, 1953) reported that Rod got too close at one time and took a “beautiful right from Lloyd!”

A report in the Sydney Daily Telegraph (Aug. 30, 1953) had a similar account. As seems typical for Rod Taylor fight scenes, “their blows became too realistic, and they knocked each other half-unconscious.” The two actors had to be dragged out of the surf, and Berrell said, “We were very sick for an hour or so while they pumped a few pints of seawater out of us.”

Take a bow

In the interview, Robinson has much praise for Rod, saying toward the end, “We think he’s the best potential star material in Australia today.”

Indeed, within a few months, Rod had won a radio prize and took off for Hollywood.

Western stars and “Hong Kong”

Sometimes the wealth of Rod Taylor material I want to share makes it hard to know where to begin. Just to start chipping away at the stack, I thought I’d post something simple: A single photograph.

One parade and a Mai Tai later, the story (as always) led in unexpected directions.

Rod Taylor
From left: Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Sheb Woolley (Rawhide), Rod Taylor (Hong Kong), John Smith (Laramie), Luana Patten (actress & John Smith’s wife), James Arness (Gunsmoke), Henry Calvin (Zorro), Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), Victoria Shaw (actress & Roger Smith’s wife), Eric Fleming (Rawhide), Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Betty Lynn (Texas John Slaughter), Tom Tryon (Texas John Slaughter).

Last year, I bought the above photo in an eBay auction of items from the James Arness family collection. The description said it was a group of CBS Western stars from the 1960s. Yes, there are several CBS TV stars, notably James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and Clint Eastwood from “Rawhide.” But there are also Disney stars and … Rod Taylor, star of of the ABC show “Hong Kong.”

What was the story behind this photo?

A plunge into turned up the answer: These stars and more were part of San Francisco’s third annual Pacific Festival, held Sept. 9-18, 1960.

Specifically, the celebrities were featured in the festival’s Youth Parade on Sept. 10, 1960. The parade took three hours, starting at 4 p.m. at the Ferry Building and rolling up Market Street to the Civic Center. About 200,000 spectators lined the parade route to watch the procession of stars, bands, floats, Samurai swordsmen, a Chinese dragon, military units and costumed representatives from 44 nations around the Pacific Ocean.

James Arness — Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” — was the parade’s grand marshal and rode the route on horseback, as did some of the other Western stars. Other parade marshals were carried along on floats.

At the time, the premiere of Rod’s first TV show was about two weeks away, so naturally he rode on a float befitting “Hong Kong.” In looking for someone to accompany him on the float, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce reached out to Mai Tai Sing, the civic-minded owner of a local establishment.

A native of the Bay Area, Mai Tai Sing had been educated in Hong Kong and then returned to California as a teenager. She toured the U.S. as a dancer before joining her brothers in opening the Ricksha bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The popular cocktail lounge had a piano bar and attracted many show business types, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and the Beatles.

At the conclusion of the parade, upon Mai Tai Sing’s invitation, Rod Taylor became another famous name at the Ricksha.

Not long after Rod returned Los Angeles and “Hong Kong,” Jack Kruschen left the show. He played Tully, owner of Tully’s Bar, a rough-and-tumble watering hole that was a prime locale in the TV series. Obviously a change in venue was needed and the decision was made to make a plush Chinese restaurant — the Golden Dragon — a new permanent set for the show.

Now the restaurant needed a hostess. Rod knew a natural — the hostess from the Ricksha in San Francisco.

“We kept in touch after he returned to Los Angeles,” Mai Tai Sing said in a January 1961 interview with columnist Joan Crosby, “but I wasn’t prepared later when he telephoned me to ask if I’d like to be in the series.”

Mai Tai Sing and the Golden Dragon made their “Hong Kong” debut in the show’s 13th episode, airing Dec. 21, 1960.

Reflecting on the first few episodes, Mai Tai told a Miami Herald interviewer in January 1961, “I find myself getting keyed up on the set. Acting is all so new to me. At such times, however, Rod has been wonderful. He’s quieted me down and told me to act natural, just the way I do in my own club in San Francisco.”

The two shared a brief romance and “Hong Kong” was canceled after another 13 episodes. Both Rod Taylor and Mai Tai Sing proceeded to have long lives and successful careers. Sing died in 2018, and you can read more about her in an excellent obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

Back to the mystery picture that started this post…. Here’s the full line-up of stars who were rounded up for the third annual Pacific Festival Youth Parade in 1960:

  • James Arness of “Gunsmoke.”
  • Rod Taylor of “Hong Kong.”
  • Eric Fleming, Sheb Wooley, Clint Eastwood and Paul Brinegar of “Rawhide.”
  • John Smith and Robert Fuller of “Laramie.”
  • Tom Tryon and Betty Lynn of “Texas John Slaughter.”
  • Henry Calvin of “Zorro.”
  • Roger Smith of “77 Sunset Strip.”
  • Kathy Nolan of “The Real McCoys.”
  • Actresses Luana Patten and Victoria Shaw.
  • Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts of “Bonanza.”
  • John Russell and Peter Brown of “Lawman.”
  • Richard Simmons of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”
  • Don Sherwood, a San Francisco disc jockey.
  • Bob March of “Captain Satellite” in Oakland, California.

A new era

Today is a big milestone in the Rod Taylor universe: Jan. 11, 2020, would have been Rod’s 90th birthday. It’s also the 19th anniversary of the Complete Rod Taylor Site.

And it’s the first day for this long-thought-about blog.

The Rod Taylor Blog will be used to announce updates to the site, share new discoveries, present details about Rod’s life and work, and more. It’ll be a bit more personal than the Updates web page it replaces, and there’ll be opportunities for readers to comment and interact.

An even bigger New Year’s resolution is aimed Jan. 11, 2021, which will mark the 20th anniversary of this website! Twenty years! That’s eons in internet time.

An early version of the website banner, from dial-up days.

I’ll be working on redesigning the Complete Rod Taylor Site website behind the scenes to make it easier to view on mobile devices and to add information and photos that I’ve been putting aside for “later.” The redesign will be a big undertaking, as I’ll be learning new technology and rebuilding a huuuuuge website. I’ve been wanting to do this for a few years, but the learning curve and the size of the job has been scaring me off. But it’s time to get going. I’m up for the challenge and and full of resolve!

When I first launched the website in 2001, I thought carefully about what to name it. I looked at other “fan sites” and noticed that when it came to the filmography section, there usually was only a list. I pledged to delve deeper. Even at the start, you could click any title and get information about each particular movie, TV show, theater production or radio show. In that way, I felt the reader could get “complete” information. Thus was born The Complete Rod Taylor Site.

The title was a bit of a folly, as no website is ever completed! But it’s been a great joy adding details, information, photos and video over the years.

And even in its earliest stages, I’m happy to note that Rod was impressed, as he wrote in emails during the spring of 2001:

I am in awe … what a huge project. You have more memorabilia and know more about ‘me’ than ‘me.’ … Sydney radio, too???? Everybody I happen to talk to agrees with me that you are one hell of a website creator, Mrs. T.

– Rod Taylor, 2001

Those are big accolades to live up to and nearly 20 years later, this website is devoted more than ever to keeping his legacy alive.