Sahara (1943) is one of those wartime propaganda films that turned out to be pretty solid. They were usually shot very quickly and with a hastily written script. I have to always remind myself that we hadn’t won the war yet and these actors could have been executed if things had gone the other war. Nazi Germany may have seemed a long way from Hollywood but Pearl Harbor was relatively close, as the bomber flies. Released in November 1943, this movie predates D-Day by almost half a year.
Did I mention it stars Humphrey Bogart?
Well, this is my first milestone – 25 episodes so I am jumping line to bring you something special. And that special is named Bogart. So welcome to Episode 25 – Sahara (1943). This is one of those wartime propaganda films that turned out to be pretty solid. They were usually shot very quickly and with a hastily written script. I have to always remind myself that we hadn’t won the war yet and these actors could have been executed if things had gone the other war. Nazi Germany may have seemed a long way from Hollywood but Pearl Harbor was relatively close, as the bomber flies. Released in November 1943, this movie predates D-Day by almost half a year.
Sahara (1943) is base in part of a Soviet film The Thirteen (1937). A decade later the studio that made Sahara (1943) made Last of the Comanches AKA The Sabre and the Arrow (1953) which starred Broderick Crawford. The movie was made again in Australia with James Belushi as Gunn and the same title Sahara (1995). This movie should never be confused or even associated with the terrible Sahara (2005) with Matthew McConaughey.
Sahara (1943) was made in the California desert. US soldier and equipment were used as extras for both sides. The German plane that attacked the tank was a P-51 painted to look German.The half-track was an American M2. The realistic sweat was created by make-up artist Harry Pringle using a coat of Vaseline and sprayed with water. According to the New York Times, over 2,000 tons of sand was transported to the location, spray painted and blown with a wind machine to give the desired effect.
I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about directors but I will when credit is deserved. Zoltan Korda was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He began his film work in Hungary and also severed in the cavalry. He moved to London where he worked with his brother in the film industry. In 1940, he and his brother moved to Hollywood and continued their film career.
Korda’s military experience drew him to making military action movies. One of these he made while in London is The Four Feathers (1939) and it widely considered to be his finest work. In America, in 1943 he was chosen to direct and write the screenplay today’s movie Sahara (1943).
Today’s film starts one of the all-time greats and perhaps one of the most influential actors of the last 75 years, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was cast in the role of Sgt. Joe Gunn, the commander of an isolated American tank in Africa during the English battle with Rommel for control of North Africa.
Bogart was born in New York City but not in Hell’s Kitchen or the rough parts like some of the actors we have already talked about. His parents were doing pretty well. Bogie was preparing for medical school at Yale when he was kicked out of Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. Bogart joined the Navy but it believed that the war ended before he says action. It is during this time that he received the scar on his lip that created his distinctive speaking style. The most commonly accepted story is that he was escorting a prisoner to the brig when the prisoner asked for a smoke. When Bogie looked for a match the prisoner hit him with his handcuffs and escaped.
After his time in the Navy, Bogart returned to New York and began acting. In 1930, he signed a contract Fox. He did some shorts but was released after 2 years. He continued stage work and minor roles until Warner Bros. began preparing to film The Petrified Forest (1936). Leslie Howard, who was later in Gone with the Wind (1939) insisted that his old stage partner, Bogart be cast in the film. Following the success of this film, Bogart was given a long-term contract with Warner Bros. These controls forced actors to take the roles they were offered. From 1936 to 40 Bogart was in 28 films.
George Raft turned down the role of High Sierra (1941) and Bogart was heading to the top. Bogart also made The Maltese Falcon (1941) playing the part of Sam Spade. This was followed by Casablanca (1942) where Bogie brought the cynical Rick to life in the fight against Nazi terror. This was followed by such films as To Have and Have Not (1944) where he met his future wife Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948) (both with Bacall). His movies continued to improve with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951) for which he won an Oscar, and The Caine Mutiny (1954). His final movie before his death was the boxing classic The Harder They Fall (1956).
Bruce Bennett played Waco Hoyt a member of the American tank crew. Before changing his name Bennett won a silver medal as a shot putter in the 1928 Olympics. Some of his earlier work was in Tarzan serials and it led to him being typecast in these roles. After completing one of these roles in 1938 Bennet dropped out to study acting. He returned with his new name and became a leading many in many Warner Bros. movies. One of my favorite roles of his as Cody, the guy that tries to join the gold miners in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Bennet retired from the movie business in 1960.
J. Carrol Naish was cast in the role of Italian soldier Giuseppe. Naish was a New Yorker that had a large amount of stage experience. He was often cast in the role of a middle eastern of Latin such as this role. He had a long movie career that spanned from 1930-1971. He was cast as Gen. Sheridan in Rio Grande (1950) with John Wayne.
The great Lloyd Bridges was cast as English soldier Fred Clarkson. This was an odd choice for the native Californian. While at UCLA he caught the acting bug and met his wife of more than 50 years.
After a little stage work, he made his film debut in 1936 and was under a Columbia contract by 1941. It was rumored in the 1950s that he was a Communist but he was cleared and during his career, he had well over 200 movie and television appearances. He is known by many from his time on the television show “Sea Hunt” 1958-61. Bridges continued to work as he grew older showing his range in comedies such as Airplane (1980), Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Hot Shots! (1991). He died of natural causes at age 85 in 1998. He is the father to actors Beau and Jeff Bridges. The dude abides.
Rex Ingram was in the role of Sgt. Major Tambul, a member of the Sudanese Defense Force. Born in Corsica, Ingram graduated from Northwestern a medical degree. Then he started an acting career that spanned 50 years. His first film was the silent Tarzan of the Apes (1918). He received praise his role The Green Pastures (1936). He is widely known for this movie and playing Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) opposite Mickey Rooney. He died 1969 and is buried in California.
Dan Duryea was the other American tank crewman, Jimmy Doyle. Duryea was born in upstate New York. He caught the acting bug early and was in the high school drama club. While at Cornell University he decided to go into advertising. This work contributed to Duryea having a heart attack in his 20s. Fortunately for all, he returned to acting. Duryea went from summer stock to Broadway, and then to Hollywood. He made his film debut in The Little Foxes (1941) with Bette Davis as his co-star.
He took a path less traveled by specializing in being the person you love to hate. IMDB states “His sniveling, deliberately taunting demeanor and snarling flat, nasal tones set the actor apart from other similar slimeballs of the 1940s and 1950s.” Duryea motto was stated to be “Once a scoundrel, always a scoundrel.” Good bad roles continued until the post-war years when Duryea began to get b parts in b movies. However, many of his roles were memorable as the bad guy that got what was coming in the end. He was a fine actor.
In his personal life, he was the opposite of the characters he played. He was devoted to his wife and family and was once a scoutmaster. Duryea died early and is buried in California. Louis Mercier was cast in the role of the Free French soldier Jean Leroux, ‘Frenchie.’ Mercier had 159 tv and movie credits not much stands out. He did a great job in this movie, however.
IMDB said that Peter Lawford was uncredited as one of the British Soldier. I looked but could not id him. Lawford was part of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop.
The movie begins with the prologue: 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.
In the opening scene, US Army Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) scrounging parts off other destroyed American tanks as German shells rain down around them. The tank received a radio message that the Germans are in every direction but south and all units should move that direction. Gunn gets the M3 Lee tank running and heads south. In Britain the tank was called by two names based on the guns were configured in the turret. The US pattern was called the “Lee,” after Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The British pattern was known as “Grant,” after Union General Ulysses S. Grant. These quickly produced M3s were replaced with M4 Sherman tanks as soon as they became available in the war.
Gunn’s M3 is named Lulu Belle after his cavalry horse. As units changed from cavalry to mechanized the former troopers were placed in relatively new tank units, aviation units, or POW/quartermaster units as von Scherbach (Otto Preminger) complained in Stalag 17 (1953).
Anyway, this movie is based loosely on the Battle of Gazala, where German forces under Rommel broke through and took Tobruk, Libya. This is also a big plot point in The Big Red One (1980) a movie that we will cover in the future. The allied forces were pushed back into Egypt and the Suez Canal was threatened with a German takeover. Moving south for the tank crew as the worst possible thing to do as the sand becomes softer and water becomes less plentiful as you go.
Back to the movie, Gunn, Waco Hoyt (Bruce Bennett), and Jimmy Doyle (Dan Duryea) head south trying to conserve fuel and water as they travel. Shortly they arrive a field hospital that the Germans have bombed. They find a group of stragglers consisting of a British doctor Captain Halliday (Richard Nugent), four Commonwealth soldiers, and Free French Corporal Leroux ‘Frenchie’ (Louis Mercier).
Halliday, the only officer, cedes command to Gunn. This is not impossible as most medical and legal officer are not line commanders but I have never seen an officer yet who’s ego would allow this. I hope to look into leadership a little later with The Command (1954) where a medical office takes command of a wagon train moving through Indian country and in Zulu (1964) where an engineering officer takes over for a line officer because he has an earlier date of rank.
The motley crew loads onto the tank and heads south. It is not too long before the group runs into Sudanese Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish). Tambul says he knows the desert and will lead the group to a well at Hassan Barani. Gunn says he will only take the allies along and insists that the Giuseppe be left behind. Giuseppe shows pictures of his family and begs but Gunn drives away. After several hundred yards the tank stop and Giuseppe is allowed to join the group.
As the small group travels further into the desert they are attacked by a German fighter plane flown by Luftwaffe pilot Captain von Schletow (Kurt Kreuger). During the attack, Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges) is wounded but the allies manage to bring the plane down. They capture the pilot who appears to not speak English. When the group arrives at Arriving at Hassan Barani they find that the well is dry. Before they leave Clarkson dies from his wounds and they bury him near the well.
Tambul leads the group to another well at Bir Acroma but it is little more than a trickle. The group wants to gather all of the water they can before they head further into the desert. In a cutaway, we find out that a German mechanized column must travel off their route to obtain water. It is not long before the German advance party arrives in an armored half-track (Half-wheels and half-tracks). Gun sets up an ambush and kills all but two of the scouts. Gunn separates the hardened German Nazi Sargent from the private and uses water to extract information from him finding out their unit is desperate for water.
Gunn releases the two Germans to walk back to their column with the false promise that he will trade water for food. As soon as the pair is around the corner the German Sargent killed the private for talking. By this point, the well has run dry.
Although his original plan was to bug out before the Germans arrived Gunn decides they might do some good if they held the German column up for a while. He gives the group a pep talk and they all agree to stay and fight. Gunn also sends Waco off in the half-track to look for help.
When the German column arrives Gunn changes the deal to water for guns. German Major von Falken (John Wengraf), orders a frontal assault on the allies which fails with heavy German losses. But the allies are losing men also. The Germans continue to attack and both sides continue to lose men.
By now the Italian prisoner Giuseppe is on the American side, the German von Schletow is keeping him under control. During an attack, von Schletow stabs Giuseppe and escapes. The mortally wound Giuseppe lets Gunn know about the escape. Since it was critical that the German not report that the well was out of water Tambul decided to run down the fleeing German and smothers him in the sand. Actor Kurt Kreuger said that when actor Rex Ingram pressed his face into the sand Kreuger almost passed out. He said if the director had not said cut he might have died from lack of air. Tambul is killed before he can make it back to the allied lines but gives the thumbs up for mission accomplished.
The Germans ask for a second parley and Frenchie goes to talk to them. While they are talking the allies pretend to take baths as they pour what little water they have from one bucket to another. Frenchie hates the Nazis because he has the most experience with them. As Frenchie returns to his lines von Falken has his men shoot him in the back. Gunn and the group fire back killing von Falken.
The German’s try a final all out assault but they are so thirsty they begin dropping their weapons and shouting “vasser, vasser” translated water, water. It is at this point you feel great fear for Gunn and Bates (Patrick O’Moore) the only survivors, wondering what will be their fate when the Nazis find there is no water at the well. Gunn is screaming and laughing – come on take all you want. The Germans go to the well and it is gushing water as a result of a German shell strike.
Gunn and Bates start collecting the Germans weapons as they drink. They begin marching the German prisoners east and meet Waco coming in with a relief column. They hear over the radio that the allies have won the Battle of El Alamein, turning back Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
World-Famous Short Summary – American GI teaches Nazis the art of bluffing