—A Great War Thriller—
Your Bogie Fix:
Director: Zoltan Korda
Tank commander Sgt. Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) joins forces with a unit of British soldiers to defend a well in the Sahara desert from the Germans – despite fifty-to-one odds!
What I Thought
Whoever was in charge of the sand in this movie should be given an honorary Oscar. Watching the actors drive, walk, stumble, crawl, and try to breathe in the desert was enough to make me feel like I had sand in my shorts by the end of this film.
Perhaps the biggest Bogart film that I had never seen up until this point, I wish I hadn’t waited so long. I’m going to wager a guess that this was a pretty influential movie to quite a few war films that followed it. Just consider this synopsis – a ragtag group of misfit soldiers band together to complete a mission against impossible odds in a mix of comedy and drama.
The Guns of Navarone? The Great Escape? The Dirty Dozen? Kelley’s Heroes?
While some of these films were based on books or real life events, I have to imagine that the humor, action, and adventurous tone of Sahara seeped into their filmed versions just a little bit.
I’m a sucker for a good underdog story. I’m also a sucker for the classic “against impossible odds” style adventure movies. Add in to the mix that these are characters of different regions, races, and ideologies, and you’ve got the makings of a classic movie if there’s a good script and a competent director.
Zoltan Korda doesn’t pull any punches here. It’s certainly a good vs. evil story, but that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a neat and tidy ending. The characters are forced into making tough choices, and nearly every decision made has positive and negative repercussions that affect the outcome of their stories.
The soldiers on both sides of the fight are flawed and noble in their own rights:
– We have moments where we’re angry at Bogart for the calloused choices he has to make to save his men.
– We understand the logic behind “Frenchie” Leroux (Louis Mercier) when he wants to kill the prisoners of war instead of giving them what scarce water is left.
– We also have deep moments of empathy for the Italian prisoner of war, and even for the battalion of Nazi soldiers who are stranded in the desert without water for days on end.
There is a particularly haunting moment late in the film when we witness a scene of German soldiers dying of thirst in the sand as they bake in the sun, locked in a standoff with Bogart’s tank battalion over the well. One soldier slowly fades away, dropping his head into the sand, as he calls out the German word for water, “Wasser . . . wasser. . .”
The Bogart Factor
When all of the soldiers take a break to rest and begin talking about where they’re from, the question eventually falls to Bogart’s Sgt. Gunn:
Halliday: What part of the states are you from, Sgt?
Gunn: No place. Just the army.
There’s an air of fatalism that pervades so many of Bogart’s best roles. Sgt. Joe Gunn is a man resigned to the fact that his chances for survival are slim, and we get the feeling that death might actually be a little relief from the dire circumstances that constantly surround him. His job is to defeat the German army, and if he can keep his men alive while doing it, so much the better. Knowing full well that it’s a suicide mission, a definite gallows humor comes out in Gunn, so that when he’s confronted with the opportunity to face the Nazis in negotiation over the well, we get this dismissive sentiment:
Major Von Falken: You have come a long way, Sgt, to pull British chestnuts out of the fire.
Gunn: Oh, we don’t mind. We like chestnuts. Don’t want to see them burn.
Something I miss in the action movies of today is the believability behind the witty repartee from our current crop of heroes. There is a long history of war and pain behind Sgt. Gunn in this film, and although we don’t know the details, we see it reflected in every word from Bogie’s mouth and every glance from his sand-lined eyes.
Richard Aherne plays the British Captain, Jason Halliday, and does very well here. From the moment that he hands over his canteen to Bogart and commands the rest of his crew to do the same, we’re ready to fall in line and recognize that this is a commanding officer with honor and dignity.
Louis Mercier’s portrayal of the French soldier, “Frenchie” Leroux, could have easily devolved into a snooty French stereotype, but Mercier keeps him grounded, giving Bogart’s crew a realistic devil’s advocate to play off of.
Rex Ingram plays the British-Sudanese soldier, Sgt. Major Tambul, and he has some of the more satisfying scenes in the film as he squeezes the last drops of water from the well and later chases down an escaped prisoner. While Ingram’s accent might not have worked out for the best, his gravitas more than makes up for it.
J. Carrol Naish is Giuseppe, the Italian prisoner of war who gets a great scene with Bogart, defending his reasoning behind his support of the Axis forces. What does it all boil down to? He’s got a wife and daughter and there is no other choice if he wants them to survive. Enough said. Director Korda doesn’t take the easy way out and paint him as the evil Nazi sympathizer.
Kurt Kreuger is the German pilot shot down by Bogart and his crew. Kreuger is as close to a clichéd bad guy as we get in the film, as he’s one of the few characters who seems to have no redeeming values whatsoever. I give him a pass, though, as he’s just so dang smug and despicable. We have to have at least one guy to hate, right?
Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea are Bogart’s tank crew, and they do their job in supporting roles well.
And look at that! A young Lloyd Bridges is on the tank crew as too! At least . . . for about thirty minutes into the film anyways . . .
Classic Bogie Moment
I love it when I’m watching a film and I feel like I can see an actor literally thinking through a problem on screen. Bogart has a lot of moments like this in his career, but one of the great examples happens early on in Sahara as Sgt. Gunn makes the decision to leave an Italian prisoner of war behind so that he can conserve water for his crew.
Watch Bogart when the tank is pulling away as the gears begin to grind within his mind. An invisible force seems to seize his upon his head and slowly twist it around until he’s looking back towards the stumbling soldier in the sand. He doesn’t want to look back. He doesn’t want to see the dying man. He knows that one glance will force him to change his mind and stop the tank. But there’s just enough heart left in his wearied body that he finally has to do the right thing.
All of that takes place with no dialogue in just a few seconds as we watch Bogart work his magic on the screen!
The Bottom Line
This is a classic action movie. I’m a dope for waiting this long to see it. And come on, isn’t that the GREATEST movie poster you’ve ever seen?!? Just looking at it makes me want to go back and rewatch the movie right now!