With the United States fully committed to World War II after December 1941, films promoting the Allies fight against the Axis were not far behind. John Wayne did his duty cinematically, starring in films like FLYING TIGERS (1942) or BACK TO BATAAN (1945). Although entertaining, these films were just a more creative form of propaganda, to sell war bonds and stir national support. With real life villains like Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, it wasn't hard to do. Another film star who made an interesting war film during WWII was Humphrey Bogart. But it's not CASABLANCA that I'm referring to. It's a 1943 tank film Bogart starred in called SAHARA.
Although CASABLANCA wasn't a success when it first came out, that didn't stop the studios from finding other exotic one word titles for their films. SAHARA may sound sexy and mysterious but it's a gritty, well-made war film that doesn't pull any punches in its portrayal of desert warfare as well as the enemy the Allies were fighting. Directed by Zoltan Korda and co-written by Korda and John Howard Lawson, SAHARA focuses on America's early entry into World War II in North Africa as we joined the British 8th Army to gain desert warfare experience.
The film opens with an American tank crew cut off from its British allies and bombarded by German artillery shells somewhere between Egypt and Libya. Stuck in no man's land and about to be overrun, Sgt Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) and his two man crew Jimmy Doyle (Dan Duryea) and Waco Hoyt (Bruce Bennett) retreat into the Sahara desert hoping to hook up with another British or American tank battalion. As the tank makes its way over sandy dunes, it becomes a sort of Noah's Ark. First, it picks up five British soldiers led by Captain Jason Halliday (Richard Nugent) with a South African named Stegman (Guy Kingsford) and a French soldier Jean Leroux (Louis T. Mercier) thrown in for good measure. Further along, the group comes across a British Sudanese soldier Sgt. Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) marching with his Italian prisoner of war Giuseppe (J. Carroll Naish).
Tambul offers to lead the tank group to a well that may be full of water but it's bone dry when they reach it. A German fighter plane on patrol piloted by Captain von Schletow (Kurt Krueger) spots the lone tank and dives at them with guns blazing. Joe lulls the German ace into thinking they're out of ammunition and shoots the plane down with his tank, capturing the arrogant German pilot, adding yet another nationality to his menagerie. Joe and the group finally reach the ruins of a desert fort where they can settle down and decide their next move.
Director Korda uses the desert outpost as a chance to showcase the collection of soldiers. There's a nice scene where Korda cross cuts between Joe and Giuseppe learning about one other in one part of the fort while Tambul and Waco find they have much in common as well in another section of the ruins. If they are to survive, this group of Americans, British, French, South African, and Italians has to work as a team. Tambul discovers that the fort's well contains some water and the group work together to bottle as much as they can.
Following behind the ragtag band of brothers, a German battalion led by Major Von Falken (John Wengraf), also lost in the Sahara, makes its way toward the ruins in search of water. Von Falken sends a scout car ahead. Joe and the others ambush the scout car and take two more Germans prisoner. After interrogating them, Joe releases the POWs, tricking them into thinking they have more water than they do. Joe's hope is to hold off the German battalion as long as possible. He sends Waco off with the scout car in the other direction to find help. The Germans arrive and a series of battles occur as the nine remaining Allies try to hold off an entire German battalion until help arrives.
Bogart's Joe Gunn is an American Everyman, fighting the Germans in the name of freedom and liberty for all. He's not married, has no girlfriend except for his beloved tank which he refers to as Lulubelle. Besides a tank, Bogart will later whisper sweet nothings to a boat the Queen in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). Sgt Joe has a nice speech mid-way through the film, meant to inspire his fellow soldiers to fight the good fight in their last stand but he's also talking to the audience in 1943, urging them to support the Allies at all costs and never surrender to the evil confronting them. It's a brief, powerful speech.
Bogart is steady as Joe, never flashy or over the top. Dan Duryea as Jimmy and Bruce Bennett as Waco have a nice camaraderie going throughout the film. An ongoing gag in SAHARA has Jimmy and Waco wagering on everything from whether Joe will let the Italian POW Giuseppe ride with them on the tank to whether Waco or Jimmy will make it out of the desert alive. Surprisingly, director Korda doesn't romanticize the stand off between Allies and the Germans. Very few of either side will be alive at the end of the film.
Director Korda is a good choice for this desert war film having directed another desert adventure film FOUR FEATHERS in 1939. The locations out near Palm Springs, California and Yuma, Arizona make SAHARA all the more authentic. The filmmakers even used American soldiers from the U.S. IV Armored Corps who were training in the area as German extras. Like any desert film, the soldiers must deal with the usual cliches like fierce sand storms and lack of water. Korda keeps the film fresh and realistic, but he does throw in the ultimate war cliche when British soldier Fred Clarkson (a young Lloyd Bridges) pulls out a photo of his sweetheart to show his mates. That is the kiss of death for any soldier in a war film. Clarkson will get shot by the German pilot Schletow soon after. Of all people, director Oliver Stone would kill off one of his soldiers the same way in PLATOON (1986). Never show a photo of your girl friend to your buddies while in the field of battle. At least not in a war film.
Like many European directors and screenwriters, Korda, born in Austria-Hungary (now Hungary), does not hide his contempt toward the Axis characters whose real life countrymen had invaded his nation. Both Schletow, the handsome blond Aryan pilot and Major Von Falken are shown as cold and sneaky men, completely brainwashed by the Nazi agenda. Von Falken even has his soldiers shoot "Frenchie" Leroux in the back after a brief cease fire, white flag still in Leroux's hand. Not surprisingly, during SAHARA'S final battle, the racist Schletow escapes from his cell only to be chased down and killed by the black Sgt Major Tambul, the symbolism not lost on anyone. Only the Italian Giuseppe is portrayed as sympathetic. He doesn't believe in Mussolini's cause, he's just a man fighting for the wrong side, hoping to return to see his child.
SAHARA caught me by surprise with its LOST PATROL like plot and its many twists and turns. It's clearly got an agenda, to support the Allies and to defeat the Axis powers, but director Korda does it in an entertaining, engaging manner. Knowing a good plot when they had one, Columbia Pictures would make a western loosely based on SAHARA in 1953 called LAST OF THE COMANCHES. Ironically, Lloyd Bridges, who had a small part in SAHARA would also co-star in COMANCHES. I just hope he didn't show a picture of his favorite gal to anyone this time.