' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sahara (1943)

Friday, April 08, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sahara (1943)

In Stefan Kanfer’s book “Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart,” he notes the actor dismissing his 1943 “Sahara” as one nobody remembered. Bogart’s theory of this run-of-the-mill product seemed to stem from his playing a hero rather than a heavy. But the movie’s transience comes across more indebted to the fact that Bogart does not have much of anything to play to, and that he does not have anything to play to because the movie was specifically designed to exist only unto its exact moment in time, an effort to drum up support for WWII, its purpose expiring roughly on about V-J Day. True, the movie only has one real flag-waver of a speech, unfurled near the end, but it evangelizes plenty for the armed forces nonetheless. When Sgt. Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) is asked where he’s from, he replies, “No place, just the army,” just as he continually refers to the M3 Lee tank he commands as “Lulabelle,” frequently describing her – I mean, it – in terms of a “dame.” Regardless of WWII’s necessity, regardless of any war’s necessity, you have to admire the jingoistic fluid drip hooked up by director Zoltan Korda, the way he renders the army as the only family a man needs and the tank he fights in as the only companion. In this light, it even sorta makes sense that the too-old Bogey would, in fact, not be too old for the army at all; spiritually, he’s a lifer. His name is Joe Gunn, but he’s really Uncle Sam in Joe Gunn’s clothing.

Taking place exclusively in the African desert after the fall of Tobruk, Gunn and his tank crew become separated from the rest of their unit and steer south across the Libyan desert in the hopes of reuniting. Along the way, several other characters enter the fold, like a Sudanese General and his Italian prisoner, a British Army medical officer and a French corporal. After shooting down a German plane, they wind up with a Luftwaffe pilot prisoner too. It’s nothing less than an African Theatre tableau, allowing for these unlikely allies and enemies to mix and match, to quarrel and come together. Not that we don’t know for one moment who’s in charge. When Captain Halliday (Richard Aherne), the British officer, and Gunn have a disagreement, Halliday resists the urging of his fellow English soldiers along for the voyage across the sand to keep at it and backs off, citing confidence in Gunn’s commanding ability. If it strangely fails to maximize potential drama, it is also a moment you can imagine American audiences of the time cheering along to. It’s important to work together, yes, but only so long as everyone is united in taking orders from us. (On the other hand, maybe it was just because Bogart’s name came first on the poster.)

Gunn is, however, convinced to have a change of heart after he cuts the Italian POW, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish), lose to conserve water, condemning his foes to death in the desert. As the tanks roll away, though, Bogart gets that damn it all to hell grimace as Gunn orders the tank back. And that Giuseppe turns out to be sympathetic, in a moving mid-movie monologue decrying Mussolini and what he and his fellow Italians were to made to fight for, Gunn’s humanity is rewarded. Even the Germans, the vile Germans, are afforded a measure of dignity in so much as Captain Halliday observes they have not been afforded the dignity of freedom in the first place, a reminder that freedom is what’s at stake overall. In moments such as these, the music swells and your heart rises, or it’s meant to anyway, to leave the theater and go put some money into war bonds. There is another moment though when the makeshift crew, deep in the desert and thirsty, is forced to ration water in a canteen to three sips each. Gunn watches each man closely, making sure he sticks to his mandated amount. Throughout this sequence no music swells. It is just the quiet of the desert and the hollow rattle of the canteen. It’s the one moment that imparts that other important lesson about war: it’s hell.

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