Sahara is, essentially, a propaganda film about the United States’ entry into the North African theatre in World War II. It has a simple story, but also a few details to commend it. The film stars Humphrey Bogart as Joe Gunn, an American sergeant who has been training with the British. Following the fall of Tobruk and subsequent British retreat, Gunn and his tank crew encounter a motley group of characters: first, the British, French, South African, Australian, and New Zealander survivors of a bombed-out medical camp, and second, a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner in tow. In their search for water, they also capture a decorated German officer. Upon finding the only well for miles around, Gunn decides to try to hold off the advancing Germans, a severely dehydrated but much larger force.
Despite being an American war film, Sahara is unusually interested in its non-American characters. (U-571 is only the most notorious instance of pro-US bias in the genre – where are the French in Saving Private Ryan?) Perhaps Sahara was intended to reassure American audiences of their allies’ competency and bravery. Regardless, the film frequently shows the soldiers sharing stories about their homes. Even Sgt. Major Tambul (Rex Ingram), the Sudanese man, is treated as a prominent character.
Though filmed no further afield than California and Arizona, Sahara is full of marvelous desert landscapes. The motionless clouds and glaring sunlight are well-captured. Even through its patchier moments, the movie practically radiates heat.
Sahara has many scenes that can only seem cliched from today’s perspective. When a character decides to take his helmet off for a spell, you can bet he’s about to get shot. When another man, having been wounded, insists it would take more than that to kill him, something more is about to happen seconds later.
Throw in an inspirational speech from Gunn in which he claims that the Germans are going to lose because they “don’t know freedom like we do,” and the film is unavoidably manipulative. Bogart sells his moments of leadership well, however, and the rest of the cast hold their ends up too. Ingram has a strong onscreen presence, while Dan Duryea takes on a rare heroic role with ease. The lesser-known Louis Mercier is another standout as the Frenchman.
Sahara does offer some food for thought. Gunn has to decide whether or not to take the Italian with them and let him drink their water, or leave him to die. Later, they must all decide whether or not to sacrifice their lives on the chance that they’ll make a difference in doing so. Though the film isn’t especially invested in exploring these conundrums to their fullest, they do give the story some resonance.
Compare Sahara with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo, released in the same year and set in the same time period. It’s a film with varied tones, experimental lighting, snappy dialogue, and complex characters (Field Marshal Rommel among them). Wilder wrung something more creative out of contemporary material, and his film holds up better today. Nonetheless, if you’re in the mood for a simple, well-made adventure story and don’t mind a streak of propaganda, Sahara may satisfy.