War Movie Mondays: ‘Sahara’ (1943)

This week’s pick is a unique look at behind the lines action during the North African campaign in the early days of World War II. Zoltan Korda directs the 1943 Columbia Pictures release of Sahara, a morale booster of a film which was based on a 1936 Soviet film called The Thirteen.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as the tough and grizzled Sergeant Joe Gunn who is in command of an American tank, which was apart of a small American task force which was sent to get combat experience, and to help the British Eighth Army turn back the famed German Africa Corp during the Western Desert Campaign in June 1942. This occurred just five months before American ground troops landed in North Africa to help turn the tide of the war. The film is dedicated to the American IV Armored Corp which assisted in the technical aspects of the film.

Rounding out the cast of Allied soldiers and the Axis are Dan Duryea (Jimmy Doyle, An American radio operator for the tank), Bruce Bennett (‘Waco’ Hoyt, Tank Driver), Richard Nugent (Captain Jason Halliday, Royal Army Medical Corp), Lloyd Bridges (Fred Clarkson), Patrick O’ Moore (Osmond ‘Ozzie’ Bates), Guy Kingsford (Peter Stegman), Carl Harbord (Marty Williams), Louis Mercier (Jean ‘Frenchie’ Leroux, a Free French soldier fighting with the British forces), Rex Ingram (Sgt. Major Tambul, a Sudanese soldier and desert guide).

The remaining cast includes J. Carrol Nash (Giuseppe, an Italian prisoner who was captured by Tambul), and Kurt Krueger (Capt. von Schletow, a German pilot who was shot down and captured).

The film opens up with Gunn, Hoyt, and Doyle repairing ‘Lulubelle’, the M-3 Lee tank which has sustained damage during an attack. Doyle intercepts a radio message from the British who warn that a retreat has been made and that the only way back towards the Egyptian border is through the south, a region which may be soft ground for the tank. Gunn uses his expertise to help get the tank up and running so as to make it back to allied controlled areas an avoid capture by the advancing Germans who have overrun Libya and are hoping to push towards British controlled Egypt, in order to seize the Suez Canal, and capture the coveted oil fields in Arabia.

While on route, Gunn and his crew encounter a motley group of Allied soldiers who are unaware that a general retreat has been ordered and that they must make it back towards the Egyptian border. At first, the primarily British force are unwilling to accompany Gunn and his crew, all accept ‘Frenchie’ (Mercier) who tells Gunn “I go with you Sergeant, because I like your American cigarettes.” The commanding officer of the detachment Capt. Halliday (Nugent) gives his men a pep talk and tells them that it is their duty to regroup and to counter attack the Germans and that the only way to do so, is to go with Gunn and his tank.

The tank also encounters Tambul (Ingram) a Sudanese soldier who has captured an Italian and made him his prisoner. Gunn agrees to take Tambul with them because he is a fellow allied soldier and can direct them to the nearest well in order to get water which they are desperately short of. Gunn refuses to take the Italian prisoner because there are now too many thirsty individuals and one more man is a serious liability to their mission. The Italian pleads with Gunn and begs that he not be left to die in the desert. Gunn finally agrees and allows the Italian to accompany them through the desert to find the well.

Much like David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia and Sam Peckinpah’s classic shoot ’em up western The Wild Bunch, Sahara is a film which draws you in and you feel as if you are right there in the desert. It makes you feel dirty, thirsty and exhausted by the end credits. Korda uses many great close ups, tight camera angles, and brilliant lighting to convey the essence of each scene. It is also a film which conveys the message to the viewer why we are fighting this war. In one scene, Gunn and his men have a choice to either gather as much water as they can and escape before a battalion of thirsty and battle weary Germans arrive to capture the well, or they can stay and fight, give the British a chance to regroup and counter attack the Germans with a holding action at the well.

At first the other allied soldiers feel that it is a futile attempt and that they will all be killed, but Gunn feels differently. He gives a speech asking why did the British allow the Nazis to get too powerful? Why did the Russians turn the tide at Moscow? Why did the Americans die in vain in the Philippines at the hands of the Japanese invaders? Gunn feels that this action will stall the Germans and prove successful even though the well has gone dry after several canteens are filled.

Gunn hopes that the Germans can be fooled in believing that the well is an important objective that will prove disastrous for them when they discover the true state of it. In numerous attempts in a battle of wills, the Germans send wave after wave of troops against the entrenched defenders who have stopped every attack so far, but their numbers begin to dwindle as the attack goes on. The film ends in the usual Hollywood fashion and that the Allies have turned back the Germans at El Alamein, and everything is justified according to Sgt. Gunn.

Sahara went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards that year for Best Sound, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor for J. Carrol Naish for his role as Giuseppe, the Italian prisoner who gives a rousing speech to the German pilot that the Italians are not so easily swayed when it comes to believing in the cause of Fascism and that he wants nothing to do with Hitler or Mussolini, and has no hatred in his heart for Gunn and his men.

Sahara is available on DVD through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented via Netflix.

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