SAHARA begins with a properly ominous tone as Miklos Rozsa’s score announces in its main theme the awesome scope and mystery of the Sahara Desert and a determined and somber march. ‘It’s big, it’s dangerous–and we’re going in’.
Directed by Zoltan Korda, who’d proven mastery of the martial side of Northern Africa adventure with 1939s superlative The Four Feathers (also graced with an evocative Rozsa soundtrack) this WW2 classic came out in November 1943. A hit with critics and public, grossing $6,600,000, hitting solid on spot #31 for the year, it copped Oscar nominations for its excellent Sound and Cinematography and for Supporting Actor, the great J.Carrol Naish. *
Set during a British defeat in Libya the previous year (the battle of Gazala), the unlikely but rousing story has an American tank crew picking up assorted Allied soldiers en route to a waterhole. A thirsty German Afrika Korps battalion is after the same well. Tough-but-fair unit leader Humphrey Bogart decides to make a stand against the overwhelming odds.
Director Korda co-wrote the script with John Howard Lawson** and Sydney Buchman. They adhere to the theme of international co-operation against the Axis by having Bogart’s tiny force made up of Americans, Brits, an Aussie, a Canadian, a Frenchman, a Sudanese and a helpful Italian prisoner. Cliched personality types (Texan, professor, wiseguy, loyal African, wry Frenchman) spout Why-We-Fight messages, but they’re well-done and the cast is very fine. It’s one of Bogart’s best hero roles (‘Joe Gunn’) and Naish is affecting as the sympathetic Italian prisoner ‘Giuseppe’. The dependable Kurt Kreuger plays the unregenerate Nazi they capture (“You dare to insult the Fuehrer?”), and Rex Ingram has one of the era’s noteworthy dignified African-American roles as the Sudanese. The tank, ‘Lulubelle’, is as much a character as the actors. “Oh, well, it all depends on the way we handle her. It’s like a dame.”
Rudolph Maté did the superior camera work, capturing the unforgiving sand world using locations in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and some dunes near Yuma, Arizona. The furious battles for the waterhole are exciting. A taut 97 minutes, with Bruce Bennett, Dan Duryea, Richard Nugent, Carl Harbord, Louis T. Mercier (hard to make out with his thick French accent), Lloyd Bridges (the 30-year old marking his 46th appearance since 1936, racking up 22 alone in 1942–he gets a handful of lines and a death scene here) and John Wengraf. Good flick.
* The groundwork for this was laid by the January 1943 release of Casablanca, which had the built-in timing from the recent Allied invasion of North Africa going for it. In the spring followed the well-received The Immortal Sergeant and Five Graves To Cairo. Beyond the news, audiences had been primed for desert escapades since the Foreign Legion epics Under Two Flags and Beau Geste, all the way back to Valentino and The Sheik. The role of Giuseppe and the sterling turn from Naish cued up audiences not just due the large percentage of Italian-American cinema patrons but for the next phase of the War—the Italian Front— that superseded the battle for North Africa.
** Remade as a western (1953s Last Of The Comanches, with Bridges moving up in billing) and again as its WW2 self, in 1995, with James Belushi in the Bogart role. The screenwriters based it on a story of Philip MacDonald’s, “Patrol”, filmed in 1934 by John Ford as a WW1 Mesopotamian Desert actioner, the seminal The Lost Patrol. Stalin was impressed with Ford’s film, and he commissioned a 1936 Soviet version called The Thirteen, which had the Red Army battling Basmachi tribesmen in Central Asia. A number of ‘Soviet westerns’ were filmed off this bitter, lengthy ‘pacification’ of tribesmen. Chief Sahara scenarist John Howard Lawson was a committed Communist and one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten: an interesting guy to read up on.