Sunday 21 August 2011

Movie Review: Sahara (1943)

With World War II still raging, director Zoltan Korda and star Humphrey Bogart produce a stirring, against-the-odds story of survival and heroism in the North African desert. Sahara also presciently portrays a world united against the Nazis, with the rag-tag collection of soldiers assembled to fight the Germans coming from the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, France and even Italy.

The tank commanded by American Sergeant Joe Gunn (Bogart) has barely survived a North African desert battle in which the Allied forces have been routed. With his only two surviving crew members Jimmy (Dan Duryea) and Waco (Bruce Bennett), Gunn's tank limps south, the only direction not cut-off by the Axis. Short on gas and water, Gunn nevertheless collects another group of British and South African Allied soldiers at the remnants of a destroyed field hospital. Soon they cross paths and also pick-up a Sudanese Major Tambul (Rex Ingram), traveling on foot across the desert with an Italian prisoner Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish).

Increasingly desperate for water, Tambul's desert navigation skills prove crucial and the overloaded tank eventually arrives at a desert well. It is almost dry, but there is enough of a trickle of water to hydrate Gunn and his men before the well is completely depleted. Nearby, a battalion of 500 German troops is also traversing the desert, frantically looking for water. When Gunn realizes that he can distract the enemy from their plans by claiming that his dry well is overflowing with water, he decides to make a stand: he persuades his ragtag group of a dozen soldiers to defend the well against the attacking but dehydrated Germans. It is a seemingly suicidal mission against a much larger enemy force, but Gunn's men dig-in and decide to sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of aiding the overall war effort.

Sahara is an early example of what became standard movie material about war heroism: the small band of determined men making a stand against ridiculous odds to serve a purpose larger than themselves. Sahara throws in nature as a third party to the conflict: the desert is more powerful than either the Allies or the Nazis, and will witness - and contribute to - the destruction of many lives on both sides.

The black and white photography in the desert is haunting, with Korda and cinematographer Rudolph Mate capturing a terrain that is quietly menacing in its endless expanse, and suddenly lethal when the sand storms kick-up. Man's helplessness in the face of the desert's dry and scorching heat becomes the catalyst for battle, particularly for the Germans, whose need for water drives them off course and becomes much more important than ideology or the war's greater objectives.

In a film with a 100 percent male cast (to compensate, Gunn always treats his tank like a lady, and is most upset when she is belittled), Bogart's persona of toughness combined with a searing understanding of the right thing to do dominates. His Sergeant Joe Gunn is a natural leader, quickly taking the tough decisions, believing in the mission, following orders, consulting when needed, and most crucially, not afraid to reverse a decision once he realizes a mistake, as when he debates the merits of abandoning Giuseppe in the desert.

Sahara maintains a good balance between scenes of warfare and character development, and even in the climactic final 30 minutes, with the outnumbered allies stubbornly defending the well, strategically-timed pauses provide time and space to delve into the personalities of the men sacrificing everything for a seemingly hopeless mission.

Sahara is everything that a great war movie needs to be: inspirational, sad, exciting, entertaining, astute and memorable.

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