As far as I know, there is only one film that tells the story of a lone tank and a group of soldiers attempting to survive in the desert of Northern Africa starring the great Humphrey Bogart. It’s called Sahara and it was released in 1943, right in the middle of America’s active involvement in the Second World War. And, because it was released during the war, don’t be surprised when the film gets a little patriotically preachy.
Be warned! There will be slight spoilers ahead, but I’ll try not to give away anything major.
The story begins just after the Americans had gotten their butts kicked by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. We find a lone American tank with a crew of three, whose commander is Sgt. Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart). Their tank, named Lulu Belle, has enough fuel and water for a few days, but they’ll need to get to friendly territory soon. They are almost completely surrounded by the Germans and really don’t have much choice but to cross the desert as quickly as they can.
They soon encounter a group of British (and one French) soldiers, who, at first, think it better to stay put. Sgt. Gunn tells them they can do that if they like, but he let’s them know the Germans are on their way and their best chance of survival is to join up with his crew. They see the soundness of the American’s plan and throw in with him.
Some early friction between the Allies arises when the men question just who is in command. You see, the Brits have an officer, Capt. Halliday (Richard Nugent) and they takes orders from him. But Gunn is the commander of the tank. Capt. Halliday settles the argument by assuring his men that he and the sergeant will consult with each other, but command of their mission to survive the desert will be given to the American. After all, the captain is a doctor, while Gunn is a combat-hardened tank commander… and the star of the film.
The party is soon joined by a Sudanese national and subject of the British Empire, Sgt. Maj. Tambul (Rex Ingram). Tambul has a prisoner, an Italian soldier played by J. Carrol Naish, whose performance may be a tad on the stereotypical side with the “whatsa matta you” dialog delivery. But it was 1943, so it’s more understandable. In fact, Naish received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this portrayal.
Now more mouths means less water. A hard decision has to be made. Tambul can stay, of course, but the Italian…
Sgt. Gunn turns out to be a softie and the Italian, despite being an enemy, is allowed to join the group. I know, that’s a little spoiler.
Tambul knows the area and he knows where wells can be found. He cautions that, although he can get them to a well, he can’t guarantee there will be water. And it turns out the first well is dry, but there is another. They have no choice. They have to get to that well.
Along the way, they pick up a prisoner. A German. And this German is depicted as being a true believer of the Nazi cause. (I won’t say how he joins the group. I’ve already spoiled enough of this 75 year old movie.)
They find the well. There is water, but just barely. It’s a trickle from the rocks at the bottom of the otherwise dry well. Tambul takes the duty of collecting as much water as possible. However, the trickle soon stops.
The water helps revive the men, but now the well is dry and they have another problem: A German battalion will arrive soon. Gunn convinces the men to stay and fight. That’s one of the scenes that get a bit patriotically preachy, but it works. Gunn dispatches one of his men, Waco (Bruce Bennett), in a German half-track they acquired at the well to try to reach the Allies for reinforcements, while this small group of soldiers does its best to hold off the Germans.
When the Germans, who overwhelmingly outnumber the good guys, arrive under a flag of truce to negotiate the Allies’ surrender, Gunn refuses and bluffs them into thinking there’s plenty of water. He knows the Germans are desperately thirsty, so he tells them they’ll get water for guns. The Germans will either have to surrender or fight to get any water.
Oooooo, how does it end, eh? Well, I won’t spoil it for you.
The film is well acted and well written. And the cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award. As a war film, I rank it pretty high. It’s well-paced with plenty of good action and suspense. And the characters are likeable, except for the Nazi prisoner. I find it thoroughly entertaining.
Before I sign off, I want to mention one scene that I found surprisingly progressive and tolerant, especially for 1943. Waco, a Texan, heads down into the well to give Tambul a break from the water collecting, but Tambul is content to stay. It’s probably much cooler being in the well than up top in the sun.
The two men strike up a conversation which leads to Tambul explaining the philosophy behind the Islamic tradition of having more than one wife. Tambul explains that the Prophet tells his followers that four wives make for a happy marriage. It’s a strange concept for Waco who is a non-Muslim; however, he learns that his and Tambul’s lives aren’t all that different.
What I like about this exchange is that there is no hint of disgust or shock or indignation from Waco when learning about the tradition of multiple wives. The Texan is genuinely curious to learn about a culture different, not better, not worse, than his own. More people today should be like Waco.
I can’t recommend Sahara highly enough.
Feel free to comment and share.
Images used under Fair Use.