Tom’s rating: My younger self felt this movie so deeply, it still gives me chills.
Tom’s review: I‘ve been writing here at Mutant Reviewers for a few months now, and in my bio I eluded to a movie that surely almost no one has heard of before, but it’s finally time for me to write about it. Yes, friends and readers, today I’m talking about Dirkie: Lost in the Desert. It was originally released in 1969 in Afrikaans as “Dirkie,” then shortly later in English with “Lost in the Desert” appended to the title of the film.
Now, to properly talk about this film from my own personal narrative, I have to paint a picture of life back in the ’70s as a kid. There was, in fact, a time when parents would just dump their kids off at the theater to watch a matinee and then pick them up later in the afternoon. It was especially popular with parents when it was a “FREE MATINEE.” There you go, two things you’ll never see now in the year 2022: abandoned kids at a movie theater and free matinees.
I was there with friends, but I might have well been alone in a desert, for I can’t even recall who I was there with. Listen, I was glued to this film! I laughed, I cried, and ultimately I was forever scarred. I mean, yeah, this was probably meant to scare the crap out of kids — and parents too! It had that Boy Scout survivalist quality to it that made ’60s movies great.
Today? Well, not so much — it’d be impossible to play out the events in Dirkie the way it unfolded in the movie because, you know, GPS. These days if a kid gets lost in the Kalahari, they just waltz up to the front desk and page their parents… oh wait, that’s the Kalahari Water Park and Resort in Round Rock Texas that I’m thinking about. Sorry.
So, yeah, long story short, I couldn’t have been much older than eight myself, abandoned in a theater, which made it all the more relatable. In re-watching now as an adult, I’m kind of surprised at how FAST the movie cuts to the chase. If you missed the first five minutes of the movie, you missed everything about who Dirkie is, who his father is, and why he’s even headed out in a plane over the desert. Blink and you’ll miss that Dirkie’s dad is a concert pianist who has a frail son with a cough that just wants to get him out of the city for some fresh air. Plus, you know, he’s busy with upcoming concerts. Kids get in the way like that.
Unfortunately for Dirkie, his dad’s brother, who also happens to be a pilot, has a heart attack mid-flight, crashes smack dab in the middle of the world’s most terrifying desert, and then dies while only managing to get a “mayday” off over the radio.
Yes, Dirkie and his dog Lolly are stranded in the desert with his uncle’s dead body. These days you’d be able to pinpoint someone stranded in the desert, but back then departure time and average-speed-traveled would be all you’d have to go on. To make matters even more confusing, Dirkie and his uncle landed out in the desert for a spot of coffee mid-flight and, well, that throws everyone off to his location. Mid-flight coffee breaks, pfft, the source of all problems, am I right?
Luckily for Dirkie, he has access to a two-way radio in the crashed plane (which surprisingly still has power) and ends up talking with the flight tower and his dad through the afternoon and into the evening. Unluckily for Dirkie, he manages to set the plane on fire while trying to scare off hyaenas with a little gasoline fire. Whoops! That’s an 8-year-old with a gas can for you!
Dirkie manages to survive the hyenas, and the adults have no idea he’s burned up their only source of communication. Thus Dirkie and his dog Lolly start wandering the desert while helicopters start to circle around looking for them — and completely miss them because they’re looking for a red and white plane and not a big burned up spot on the ground.
My word this movie plays on all the right fears: fear of plane crashes, fear of starvation and dehydration, fear of your pet being killed, fear of being eaten by wild animals, fear of your dog knocking a boulder on to your head (what? That’s a valid fear!), fear of snakes, fear of scorpions, fear of . . . death. The only part that seems good for kids to hear is the affirmation that they shouldn’t give up if things get hopeless because they are loved by their parents, but my word, all the childhood fear and trauma you have to go through in this film to get to those messages of hope!
Dirkie ends up showing his resourcefulness by hunting for eggs and doing what little boys in the ’70s did best, climb trees to raid bird nests! Lolly even pitches in and helps him find water by digging in a dry river bed. Lolly is the bestest girl in the film and serves as the movie’s only comedy relief from a rather stressful movie where a hyena is always 10 paces behind.
Luckily for Dirkie, his dad won’t give up and drops two million leaflets across the desert telling Dirkie he will find him. Unluckily for Dirkie, as soon as he finds one of the leaflets, a spitting snake spits poison in his eyes so he can’t read it.
Luckily for Dirkie, a bushman and his son save Dirkie’s life at the last minute after he’s been stung by a scorpion while wandering around half blind. Unluckily for Dirkie, he runs away from his bushman savior when he wakes up and sees him snacking on some chicken bones and believes them to be the remains of Lolly. (You have no idea how much this freaked me out as a kid.)
Luckily for Dirkie, Lolly was really just up the hill and, surprise, had puppies! Unluckily for Dirkie, the bushman burns his hut down and turns his back on Dirkie thinking he has a demon in him after Dirkie throws rocks at him for supposedly eating his pet.
Just at the last moment when all is lost and Dirkie is left for dead, Dirkie’s dad and his plucky survivalist friend head into the Red Dunes to find Dirkie and manage to find the very bushman that saved his life and left him to die with his demons. The bushman gets him close to where Dirkie is, but ultimately it’s Lolly’s barking that helps Dirkie’s dad find him and rescue him from the sands. Dirkie, Dirkie’s dad, and Dirkie’s dad’s new female reporter love interest drag themselves off screen and… roll credits!
I kind of hope that someone reading this review also remembers being dropped off at the movie theater to watch this film as a child and also has the same childhood trauma inside them. Then again, would I wish Dirkie on another impressionable eight-year-old? Sure why not! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Right? RIGHT?