“There are troublesome things taking place in different parts of the empire today that we don’t like — and don’t quite understand.”
A man (Basil Rathbone) serving in the British colony of the Gold Coast returns home with his wife (Barbara O’Neil), hoping to stay in England — but when his tradition-bound grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) sends his younger brother (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) back to investigate an ant scientist (Lionel Atwill) who may be responsible for mysterious radio signals, Rathbone and pregnant O’Neil follow along to ensure his safety; meanwhile, Fairbanks, Jr.’s girlfriend (Virginia Field) is determined to stick by his side through even the hardest of times.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Basil Rathbone Films
- Cecil Kellaway Films
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Films
- Lionel Atwill Films
- World Domination
This explicitly pro-Colonial “tribute” flick opens with a dedication to “the countless millions bred in the British Isles who, through the past four centuries, have gone forth to the far corners of the earth to find new countries, to establish laws and the ethics of government, who have kept high the standards of civilization” — then shifts to a slide describing the Gold Coast of Africa as “– heat — humidity — fever — known for years as ‘the white man’s grave’.”
This condescending tone is maintained throughout, with Smith’s familial brood showcased as noble and heroic martyrs to the “cause” of colonialism. Just as troublesome is the inexplicable central subplot involving Atwill, ants, radio signals, and dastardly intentions — what in the world is this all about?
It seems we’re meant to view Atwill as a generic baddie stirring up foment in dominated peoples on behalf of his own hunger for power; was this merely a panicked plea from those who saw the writing of World War II and a post-colonial future on the wall? And what in the world do ants have to do with all of this, anyway? We are primed to cheer for Fairbanks, Jr. as he makes restitution for an unintentionally lethal error in his work, but to what end? This film is a bit of a muddled mess, and hasn’t aged well at all.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Basil Rathbone in an atypically sympathetic role
Nope; feel free to skip this one.
One thought on “Sun Never Sets, The (1939)”
First viewing. Not must-see – and an astute assessment already given above.
My favorite scene is the ants-discussion one between Rathbone and Atwill (appropriately cast as the egomaniac; apparently, in real life, he was a very strange person). I rather like Atwill being obsessed with ants (something Rathbone’s character had already written an entire book about, though Atwill was unaware of that at first) – it establishes Atwill as an all-purpose (not specific) “baddie” set on global destruction; pitting every country against each other. That makes the whole film less specific; there’s just a crazy man loose in the world, not tied to a particular human philosophy.
Occasionally, by turns, the film feels either contrived or sluggish, though the cast can’t be faulted.
I did wonder why O’Neil – about to give birth – still looks so… thin!