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"In June, 1942, a small detachment of American tanks with American crews, joined the British Eighth Army in North Africa to get experience in desert warfare under actual battle conditions...History has proved that they learned their lesson well --." This title card announces the recent history behind the 1943 Columbia Pictures release Sahara, an intelligent and intense action film, one of the first made by Humphrey Bogart following the enormous success of Casablanca (1942).
Sgt. Joe Gunn (Bogart) is an American tank commander fighting alongside seasoned British troops in the Libyan desert in 1942. A Nazi offensive has resulted in the fall of Tobruk and a general retreat of the Allies. Sgt. Gunn and his remaining men, Waco (Bruce Bennett) and Jimmy (Dan Duryea) take on additional Allied stragglers as they nurse their tank (nicknamed "Lulubelle") along on a journey to find a source of water in the desert heat. Among the additional passengers are a Sudanese corporal (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner (J. Carrol Naish), and a Nazi pilot (Kurt Krueger) that the tank crew downs while being strafed. The group reaches a deserted outpost which yields barely enough water to sustain them. A battalion of thirsty German soldiers is fast approaching, and Sgt. Gunn determines to defend the outpost, pretending it is rich in water, thereby drawing the Nazis away from their line and buying time for an Allied reinforcement.
Hungarian director Zoltan Korda was an ideal choice to helm Sahara, as he had already won worldwide acclaim for his handling of The Four Feathers (1939), the desert adventure produced by his brother Alexander Korda. The story of Sahara draws from the Soviet film Trinadtsat (1937), in which a band of soldiers are escorting civilians across the Asian desert when they are surrounded at a waterhole by a large group of bandits. There are also similarities to John Ford's all-male desert adventure, The Lost Patrol (1934). Comparisons aside, Korda's film has immediacy and tension and is notable for minimizing the propagandizing that usually accompanies wartime movies. His use of a multi-national cast also feels refreshingly uncontrived. Adding immeasurably to the film are the contributions of cinematographer Rudolph Mate and composer Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa had scored Korda's The Four Feathers and would write the music for another desert warfare film from 1943, Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo.
Sahara was shot in the early months of 1943 in the California desert, specifically the Borego Desert in the Imperial Valley, just north of the Mexican border. The valley is 235 feet below sea level, and the mid-winter temperatures at the time of the filming would have been in the nineties. The cast and crew stayed at the Planter's Hotel in the small town of Brawley, about forty miles from the filming location. Humphrey Bogart was on loan from home studio Warner Bros. for the Columbia film. In their biography Bogart, A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax described the star's routine on the shooting location: "Because Brawley offered little diversion in the evenings, Bogart regularly invited colleagues up to his suite for drinks. The German actor Kurt Krueger, who played a downed Nazi airman, spent congenial nights in the star's sparsely furnished rooms. Bogart enlivened the occasions, and 'couldn't have been more outgoing.' Krueger shared a ride to the location one day with Mayo Methot, Bogart's then-wife, who sat beside him, carefully cradling a thermos. Why, he asked, was she bringing coffee when there was always coffee on the set? Mayo threw back her head and let out a peal of throaty laughter. 'Coffee? Hell, no! Bogie needs his ice-cold Martinis.'"
Bogart and his wife Mayo were nicknamed "the Battling Bogarts" during the early 1940s; they were notorious for mixing loud and sometimes violent arguments with their late-night drinking. According to Sperber and Lax, Bogart often reported to the Sahara set hungover and quarrelsome, arguing with Korda about his character's dialogue. After the film was completed, Korda complained to Bruce Bennett about Bogart's behavior. "'Don't you realize what was going on?' Bennett told him. 'He was learning his lines.' 'My God,' Zoltan replied. 'If I'd known that, it would have taken a load off my mind.'"
The all-male cast of Sahara was widely praised by the critics. J. Carrol Naish was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the Italian prisoner; his Axis character is treated sympathetically, unusual for a wartime film. Rex Ingram is memorable as the Sudanese officer; the versatile Ingram had also appeared in the Korda production The Thief of Bagdad (1940), as the Genie. Sahara also provided one of Bruce Bennett's best roles. Bennett would appear again with Bogart in Dark Passage (1947) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Notable screen villain Dan Duryea was handed a rare good guy role. As quoted in Hollywood Players: The Forties, Duryea later said "Sahara is a picture which practically nobody remembers my being in; one of the few pictures I didn't play a heel and maybe for that reason."
"Walt" in Variety found much else to praise: "Script is packed with pithy dialog, lusty action and suspense, and logically and well-devised situations avoiding ultra-theatrics throughout. It's an all-male cast, but absence of romance is not missed in the rapid-fire unfolding of vivid melodrama. ...Production mounting is topnotch throughout, with desert providing major portion of the footage. Photography by Rudolph Mate is excellent." Bosley Crowther in New York Times justly calls Sahara a "tense, exciting film," and "...as rugged as Mr. Bogart all the way and in a class with that memorable picture which it plainly resembles, 'The Lost Patrol'.
Sahara was remade quite faithfully in 1953 as a western, Last of the Comanches. Directed by Andre De Toth, the film shifts the action to the American West of 1876, as a Cavalry Sgt. (Broderick Crawford) leads the survivors of a devastating Indian attack across the desert in search of safety. The soldiers are joined by a varied batch of Stagecoach passengers, and water is scarce. When they find water at a deserted mission, they decide to stand their ground against the approaching Comanche Indians, who are also in need of water. Sahara itself was not remade until 1995, as a Showtime TV movie filmed in Australia, with Jim Belushi in the Bogart role.
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: John Howard Lawson, Zoltan Korda
Story and Adaptation: Philip MacDonald, James O'Hanlon
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate&eacc;
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Set Decoration: William Kiernan
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sgt. Joe Gunn), Bruce Bennett (Waco Hoyt), J. Carrol Naish (Giuseppe), Lloyd Bridges (Fred Clarkson), Rex Ingram (Sgt. Major Tambul), Dan Duryea (Jimmy Doyle), Kurt Krueger (Capt. von Schletow).
by John M. Miller