SAHARA is an excellent war film and a very good portrayal of the kind of friendship and diversity the Allies needed to defeat the Afrika Korps in North Africa.
Humphrey Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn, commander of a Grant/Lee Tank, also known as an M-3. The M-3s were superior to every British tank and were on par with the Germans' Mark IV Panzer. A slight flaw is that, outside of this movie, no subsequent film or documentary mentions any Americans being with the British 8th Army at Tobruk. Supposedly, the M-3s were shipped to Malta, the British base in the Mediterranean. By then, the Brits were well-versed in how to run it. Doubtless, any ship sailing straight from America to Egypt would have been blown to pieces by a U-Boat, the Luftwaffe or the Kriegsmarine.
Anyway, Bogart and his crewmates Bruce Bennett (aka Herman "Tarzan" Brix) and Dan Duryea are alone in the Libyan desert after the fall of Tobruk. Being 1943 and that this film was a feel-good piece of Allied propaganda, no mention is made of how the British wasted the incredibly gallant stand by the Free French at Bir Hacheim and let the Germans outflank them while they literally drank tea.
Bogart and crew head south to regroup, trying to coax as many miles out of Lulubelle, the name of the tank. They come up a diverse band of Allied soldiers from many nationalities -- English, Irish, Australian, South African and French. Together they head for the nearest well as they are desperately in need of water. Along the way, they pick up a Sudanese sergeant major named Tambul (excellently portrayed by Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner (the always reliable Irish-born J. Carrol Naish). It was a rare thing to see a black character portrayed as an equal with whites, but Ingram pulled it off seamlessly. Look for his scene in the well with Bennett when he is asked about the Islamic custom of having more than one wife. Anyway, Tambul leads them to a well, but it's dry, so he takes them to a second well where they find only a trickle of water.
During the trip they lose Lloyd Bridges in probably the briefest acting portrayal for a man billed fourth on the cast list. A Luftwaffe fighter pilot (Kurt Kreuger) strafes the tank, but is shot down when he is lulled into making one pass too many and flies within gun range of Lulubelle and Sgt. Gunn. Kreuger's role will become extremely important later, especially when he tries to force his reluctant Italian ally to show respect for Hitler and help Kreuger escape.
The plot gets even more interesting when Bogart persuades the men to stay at the well instead of taking all the water they can carry and leaving. The purpose was really for propaganda purposes, to show that the diverse allied soldiers could work well together and be willing to sacrifice their lives for each other against a common enemy -- a somewhat stereotypical, but well-played enemy led by veteran actor John Wengraf.
Other reviewers have noted that the battle was needless since the tank crew and allies could have taken the water and left the well, driving to the nearest British position. First of all, that would have defeated the propaganda appeal of the film. Secondly, the tank only had 150 miles, at best, of fuel. Sixty miles' worth was used to the first well, then another 50 to the second well. The tank could very well have been stuck in the desert, out of gas, waiting for the Luftwaffe to swoop down with a bomb. They don't mention it in the film, but for us viewers, hindsight is always 20/20.
Besides, all the fine acting of the first-rate cast would have gone unnoticed, including Louis Mercier as Frenchie LeBeau. His scene of how life in his village was as simple as cutting slices of cheese and washing them down with fine wine before the Nazis came in and killed everybody is excellent.
I don't think it's a spoiler alert to say that most of the actors don't make it to the end. Each dies a heroic death, including Tambul who takes care of a certain Luftwaffe pilot who throws racial slurs around way too easily while showing his Italian "ally" how ruthless a Nazi can be. The battle scenes are good, except way too many German soldiers stay on their feet even when explosions go off right next to them. Kreuger's role is good as he and Bogart square off in a classic battle of psychological warfare. Whose will will break first -- courageous allies fighting evil or disciplined, cold-blooded men desperate for water?
In another nod to a WWII ally, the film was adapted from a Soviet play that originally had 13 Soviet nationalities coming together to fight the Nazis at Moscow.
As I said before, the film was made in 1943 and was a "feel-good" film made for the American public and our allies. Bogart holds up his end well, although he gets a bit too preachy at times. Bruce Bennett is a little too stiff and bland, but then again, he wasn't the most fluid Tarzan either.
The main flaw is that the German fighter plane was a painted-over American fighter. A lot of people in the 1943 viewings picked that out right away. But, it can be overlooked because the Luftwaffe wasn't giving up its planes without a fight.
All in all, a first-rate film. A lot of people overlook this gem when putting together a library of Bogart films. It easily holds up with "The Maltese Falcon," "The African Queen" and "Casablanca."
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