Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

SAHARA (1943)

Directed by Zoltan Korda. Written by John Howard Lawson, Korda and others. Photography, Rudolph Maté. Music, Miklos Rosza. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Bruce Bennett, J. Carrol Naish, Lloyd Bridges, Rex Ingram, Richard Nugent, Dan Duryea, et al.

In these days of World War II movies (Saving Private Ryan -The Thin Red Line- fine documentaries on the History Channel, etc.) my strong interest in the subject made me watch for the nth time that oldie-goodie, Sahara.

This WW II actioneer set in North Africa was inspired from an incident in an older Soviet film, which incident it transposes. The British are retreating from Tobruk. American tank commander, Sergeant Humphrey Bogart, cut off behind the lines of the retreating British, tries to reach the main force, with a motley crew of Americans, British and Africans, plus two prisoners. They must outfox the Germans and find water. At the well, the small group will try to delay an advancing enemy battalion of 500.

1943 was smack in the middle of a time that went for strong and simple movie heroics. Bogie¹s: ³We have only one purpose, to save ourselves to be able to fight again² sums up the good and the bad of the film.

The vigorous action-and-survival story is well directed by Zoltan Korda, well shot by Rudolph Mate, well co-written by John Howard Lawson. Rudolph Maté was an ace cinematographer with an impressive list of credits. He later turn to directing. (Offhand, I think that his D.O.A. --the prototype-- is his most original film). Other Sahara credits are excellent. It was a strong team.

The three cosmopolitan Hungarian Korda brothers (Zoltan, the director; Vincent, the art director; Alexander, the director and mega-producer) had their long, important last part of their career in Great Britain.

Zoltan, directed there not too many films, but these included the masterful paean to the Brits and their Empire, Four Feathers (1939), designed by Vincent, produced by Alexander. In fact, Alexander contributed enormously to the genre I think of as "England as Brittania. "

It is a fact too that without Alexander Korda (and Alfred Hitchcock), British cinema in the 1930s would not have become a major player.

Lawson, a major Hollywood scriptwriter, was a leftist whose work included patriotic American films. He became one of the Hollywood Ten victims in the post-war days of witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy.

The production values of Sahara are very good. And Bogart is Bogie in fine fettle. He had been doing war films since Across the Pacific (1942) --which may not be on the rosters of notable films, but which I think is great in a pre-campy way. Well worth seeing. Casablanca came out in later 1942. Four, count'em, Bogiepics came out in 1942!

Back to Sahara. It's fine and dandy but it has a seeming weakness: the well-meaning, (inevitable in its day, but now dated) propaganda in the dialogue. It gets especialy silly with Giuseppe (J.Carroll Naish), the "nice" Italian prisoner of war who feels like a caricature. Among other things, he delivers to the nasty German co-prisoner a long, very scripted and patriotic anti-Nazi speech. It is more than doubtful that anyone ever spoke that way. Today, if anything, it is almost like comic relief.

But it's not all that simple. 1943 was the year of the meeting (January 14) of Britain's Prime Minister Churchill and US. President Roosevelt in -- yes !!! --Casablanca, to discuss among other plans, the invasion of Italy. The Allies invaded Sicily on July10, 1943. On September 3, Italy signed an armistice. On October 13, Italy declared was against the Germans.

 "Sahara" was released, cannily, on November 11, 1943, Armistice Day (later Veterans Day). Great timing!

I do not know the exact dates of the movie's conception, writing, and shooting, but-- again, most cannily-- it is clear to me that the whole thing was a preparation for, if not an echo of, the Italian events. With so many Italian-American GIs fighting and dying for the U.S.A, Hollywood was always mindful to sing the praises of its huge Italian-American population. The twist here is to extend the spirit of democracy to Italian-Italians and pave the way for an USA-Italy entente.

So, politically, it was not, at the time, all that silly to have placed all those good sentiments in the mouth of "amico Italiano" Giuseppe.

J. Carroll Naish, by the way, was a prince among supporting actors. He played an incredible number of roles in which he was everything from a Latin- American to a Greek, a Frenchman, an Indian-Indian, an American Indian (Sitting Bull), an Arab, a Chinese, and more.

The gag (unverified by me) is that this New Yorker born of Irish parents played every nationality except an Irishman!

With many more virtues than flaws, Sahara is still among the better war movies. Three Oscar nominations include Supporting actor (Naish) and Cinematography. It was often imitated, notably as a Western, The Last of the Comanches (Edwin Jahiel)

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel