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Columbia TriStar
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 97m. / Street Date December 11, 2001 / 24.95
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Bruce Bennett, J. Carrol Naish, Lloyd Bridges, Rex Ingram, Richard Nugent, Dan Duryea
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Art Directors Lionel Banks, Eugene Lourie
Film Editor Charles Nelson
Original Music Miklós Rózsa
Writing credits Zoltan Korda, John Howard Lawson adapted by James O'Hanlon from a story by Philip MacDonald
Produced by Harry Joe Brown
Directed by Zoltan Korda

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the very best war films, and made while fighting was going on in North Africa, Sahara is an immensely entertaining adventure. Humphrey Bogart is at his best in this ode to allied unity, and the promise of a better world after the defeat of the Nazis.


Cut off behind enemy lines, the lone M3 Lee Tank Lulubelle commanded by Sergeant Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) picks up some British troops and an Italian deserter (J. Carrol Naish) on its journey across the open desert, before holing up at a tiny spot on the map said to be an oasis. There's water, but only a few drips at a time from an underground well found by Sergeant Tambul (Rex Ingram), and Gunn's problems contending with a vicious Nazi pilot he's taken prisoner (Kurt Kreuger) are compounded when a large German detachment surrounds the oasis under the delusion that there's enough water for all. Gunn has to make his ragged group look heavily supplied and water-rich, if he's to keep his little international force from being overrun by hundreds of thirsty enemy soldiers.

Sahara is an excellent example of a wartime movie that stressed international cooperation against the Axis. It was actually adapted from an incident in a 1937 Soviet film. The script interrupts its combat scenes for several speeches about the future that stressed the possible Utopia that might result if all countries kept up the wartime cooperation. This becomes ironic when you find out that Sahara's writer, John Howard Lawson, became one of the Hollywood Ten, investigated when his political leanings made him a target for opportunistic witch hunters at the beginning of the Cold War. After some nice pictures, his career came to an abrupt halt in 1947. Savant takes the (perhaps Communist-sympathetic) speeches in pictures like Sahara and some others by Dalton Trumbo, as the Utopian poetry of WW2.

Lawson could also fashion a great story, and in emigré Zoltan Korda's hands it becomes a realistic and gritty tale of action and sacrifice. The nine defenders of the Egyptian oasis are individuals first and national representatives later; top acting honors go to J. Carrol Naish's Italian soldier, an unforgettable sentimental portrait that allows tough-guy Bogie to show his soft side. Naish has the habit of running away with lesser films (even House of Frankenstein) and enriches this one as well. Also standing out is the great Rex Ingram, whose Tambul is an African soldier given full character rights. His voice is one of the best things in films of the period, instantly recognizable in The Thief of Baghdad, Cabin in the Sky and The Green Pastures. Ingram was one 'Hollywood black' whose persona always exuded dignity. Bogie's sidekicks are played by Dan Duryea, escaping briefly from creep roles in films like The Little Foxes, and Bruce Bennett, best remembered from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the survivor of a major career detour as a little-known Tarzan under the name Herman Brix.

These great characters are backed up by a story that takes full advantage of the desert setting. The sand and aridity is convincing because the movie was shot on location in the low desert of Southern California. After a couple of thirsty hours out there, it really makes one wonder how armies could fight under such conditions. Having enough water must have been a more important factor than all the tanks and guns an army could carry, and it's completely convincing when our ragtag survivors accept the surrender of such a large number of enemy soldiers (the fact that their officer is killed helps a bit, too). Sahara is simply an entertaining, and satisfying show.

Columbia Tristar's DVD of Sahara is from a good 1998 transfer made for VHS, and has crisp hiss-less audio and only the few speckles and blemishes you'd expect from such an old feature. The disc is plainwrap, with the trailers turning out to be for other films and the filmographies just 'highlights.' The artwork for the package and the inside leaflet are attractive, even though they've inexplicably included one still of Bogart with Lee J. Cobb, from Sirocco. Lloyd Bridges' name is also splashed all over the cover, even though his part is a bit that goes by fairly unnoticed, and he doesn't even appear on the official cast list.

Sahara's tank became an hommage in Steven Spielberg's 1941. We studied Sahara carefully when the amazing mechanic Pat Carmen recreated Lulubelle from a discarded wreck on a Nevada target range. Savant's favorite discussion with John Candy on that movie (namedrop, namedrop) was about the possibility of making a comedy version of Sahara with the same dopey tank crew, possibly to be called 1942. This of course depended on the presumed smash success of Spielberg's film, so you can guess how far that idea got. It's probably a better idea that the memory of this classic not be besmirched, anyhow.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sahara rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers for three other Columbia war pix.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: December 10, 2001

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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