When I first saw Sands of the Kalahari, I figured it was inspired by Robert Audrey’s African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man. Audrey made the case that man had evolved from Australopithecus africanus, a violent, murderous primate. His book soon became all the rage. However, African Genesis was published in 1961, whereas the novel, The Sands of the Kalahari by William Patrick Mulvihill, was published in 1960. On the other hand, the theory that man had evolved from killer apes had originally been proposed by Raymond Dart. Audrey interviewed Dart and wrote an article about Dart’s theories in The Reporter in 1955, so perhaps that was Mulvihill’s inspiration after all.
In the movie, a group of passengers are on a small airplane that crashes in the middle of the desert in southern Africa. They manage to find shelter, water, and food in a mountainous area, which also is inhabited by a troop of baboons. One of the characters, O’Brian (Stuart Whitman), who has a hunting rifle, decides that his chances of survival will improve if he wipes out the competition, which includes not only the baboons, but also the other survivors, except for Grace (Susannah York), who also functions as something worth competing for.
One of the men he runs off manages to cross the desert and make it to civilization. He returns in a helicopter to rescue those who have survived, but O’Brian refuses to go with them, presumably because he would be tried for murder. He eventually runs out of bullets. As the baboons become more menacing, he decides to fight their leader with only his bare hands, eventually killing the baboon with a rock he managed to grab. Earlier in the movie, the point had been made that the leader of the troop was the one that got first access to all the females. After he kills his foe, other baboons begin to approach in a manner suggesting that they recognize him as their new leader. In fact, we suspect the approaching baboons are females. Will O’Brian indulge? The second time I saw this movie was on the Late Show. As the female baboons closed in around O’Brian, some joker in the television studio played the Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell. For that matter, before Tarzan met Jane, did he indulge?
The movie is a little dated now. When it first came out, the idea that man was a killer ape was new. As a result, the author of the screenplay probably felt it necessary to have several characters drive home the point that man is in many ways like the baboons. Today, when the expression “alpha male” has become commonplace, if not trite, such repetitive, explicit comparisons to the baboons now seem overdone. Also, since the group has plenty of water, food, and shelter, the idea that several of them, and not just O’Brian, would start thinking and acting like baboons after only two days is a stretch.