Friday, July 14, 2017

Review: Sahara (1943) dir. Zoltan Korda

Sahara is one of the best wartime "propaganda" films made during World War II. It combines elements of Beau Geste and countless westerns. In June 1942 Rommel's forces are driving the British back into Egypt. An American M3 Lee tank commanded by Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) has become separated from its parent unit. Gunn, and his two remaining crew members, decide to head south through the Libyan desert in an attempt to reach Allied lines. Their escape turns into an odyssey.

Bogart with Lulu Belle

Soon after heading south, Sgt. Gunn encounters a bombed out British field hospital. He takes along several British Empire soldiers (one portrayed by Lloyd Bridges), the doctor and a Free French soldier. They also pick up a Sudanese soldier Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner. With the guidance of Tambul, this microcosm of the Allied war effort makes their way to a ruin that boasts a well with a trickle of water. 

As Sgt. Gunn and company collect all the water available, a lost German battalion makes an appearance. The Germans are in desperate need of water. Gunn gives a rousing speech on why they should stand and fight to delay the German column. They do just that. I don't want to give away too much. Watch the movie and enjoy one of the most memorable endings produced during Hollywood's Golden Age. 

This film reiterates the theme of the more well-known Casablanca and Life Boat. In these films a heterogeneous group representing the Allies must learn how to cooperate to defeat the common enemy. In these films the German/Nazi characters are irredeemably evil and have to be fought to the death (with or without rounding up the usual suspects). Sahara adds an interesting twist to this theme. The Italian prisoner ultimately repudiates Mussolini and redeems himself. It's a rather prescient part of the plot. Around the time of this film's release, the Italians had overthrown Mussolini and were welcomed to the Allied cause. 

Sahara adds something else to the usual Allied mixture. Sgt. Tambul is both black and Moslem. He's one of the best soldiers in the movie and is instrumental in the group's survival, as mentioned above. In one scene, he explains to an American solder why Moslems are allowed to have four wives. The American finds the explanation interesting and quips, "we can learn from each other." The Free French and British forces had significant numbers of Moslem soldiers enlisted. So, the inclusion of Sgt. Tumbul is not unrealistic. What's illustrative is that he was included and is so positively depicted. By the way, Ingram's performance is top-notch. Contrary to current whining of Moslem victimhood, Hollywood has always portrayed Moslems in a positive light. In part, this was the result of the Studio Code. There was also the lack of knowledge about Islam by film makers and much romanticism was involved. 

The black and white cinematography is most effective for this desert epic. The cascading sand dunes are memorizing. The theme of isolation and having to depend on one's own resources was used by Hitchcock the following year in Life Boat. The pacing is excellent. The first half of the film is devoted to character and plot development. The viewer knows all he needs for the climatic battle for the well. Therefore, the characters' actions make sense and don't require much explanation. This is how it's done. Contemporary movie makers should take note. One problem with overblown special effects extravaganzas is their god awful pacing.

Sahara was filmed in Southern California near the Salton Sea. Happily, the US Army's Desert Training Center established by General George Patton was nearby. All of the military equipment used for the film was "donated" by the 4th Armored Division that was in training at the time. Even 100 US Army soldiers were used as extras to depict the Germans. 

I highly recommend this film for anyone who enjoys a great action/war movie. It's also an interesting time capsule of the early period of the war from an American perspective.  


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