For South Africa’s Wartime Censors, ‘The Stick’ Was Too Dangerous to Release
1988 horror film was darkly cynical
Between 1966 and 1990, South Africa fought a brutal, bloody war along its northern border. In 1988, South African writer-director Darrell Roodt released his movie The Stick. The government promptly banned it.
The Stick is a horror film about South African soldiers fighting a pointless war far from home. Censors feared releasing the movie would be “highly detrimental to the safety of the state as well as to the peace and good order of the countries involved.”
The censors were right to worry. The Stick opens on South African soldiers wandering through the bush, hunting “terrorists.” Out of nowhere, communist insurgents armed with machine guns ambush the soldiers, killing every one they see before disappearing into the trees.
Cut to a Madonna-esque entertainer dancing and singing for troops about to go to the front. The soldiers aren’t paying attention. They’re doing drugs and having sex.
“Things got so bad, they — the generals and politicians — didn’t even know how to control us anymore,” Cooper, the film’s protagonist, narrates. “It wasn’t enough to give speeches about patriotism, hand out medals or talk about the invasion of communism. We were too busy trying to stay alive to worry about our mother’s and sisters being raped by homesick Cubans.”
In the morning, the brass tell Cooper and his fellow soldiers that terrorists north of the border keep killing South African troops. Their solution is to break several platoons into small groups of eight soldiers each, called “sticks,” and send them to hunt the enemy.
Cooper and some other soldiers—including an ineffectual lieutenant and a clownishly racist drug-addict named O’Grady—head toward their doom.
What follows is a classic horror plot. O’Grady sets the tone by shooting an unarmed child in the back as soon as the stick crosses the border. Later, the soldiers find a village of women, children and one witch doctor. The lieutenant shoots one of his own soldiers for failing to translate for the witch doctor. Then Cooper shoots the witch doctor, O’Grady burns down the village and things, well, devolve.
It’s not a terribly original movie, but it’s well-directed and acted and—for a microbudget feature—holds up well. It deserves a better release than the grainy VHS rips you can find online.
What’s so striking about The Stick is its cynicism. In 1980s South Africa, it was enough to get the movie pulled from distribution. In the end, only Cooper survives. He’s haunted. His commanders just wants Cooper to shut the Hell up about what he saw.
They propose to send him home. Cooper looks at the general who comes to discharge him from the hospital. The soldier stares directly into the camera lens. “You’re gonna lose this fucking war,” he says.
The censors called out the language of the film during their review and various appeals, and this line in particular was a sticking point. “A substantial number of viewers would … simply regard these words as an attempt … to move people to lose confidence in the South African war effort or a similar effort against terrorists,” South Africa’s Film Appeal Board wrote at the time.
South Africa’s Border War ended in 1990, just two years after The Stick’s eventual—and heavily censored—release. Director Roodt would go on to win an Oscar for best foreign-language film for 2004’s Yesterday. The same year, he released the T.V.-movie disaster Dracula 3000 starring Casper Van Dien and Coolio.
The first is the story of a young Zulu mother with AIDS struggling to survive long enough to see her daughter off to school. The other is about Dracula in space. The Stick falls somewhere in between.