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Ring a Ding Ding

Sahara (1943)

     It is not often other actors can stand up against the performances of Humphrey Bogart and come out on par, but in Sahara the entire cast manages to stand on level footing with the master. This flick was said to me Bogie’s favorite film and one can understand why. His superb performance and the fantastic story must have left droves of audiences feeling uplifted and patriotic as I did upon the credits’ rolling.

     Bogart is Sgt. Gunn who with “Waco” (Bruce Bennett) and Fred Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges) is in Libya in an American tank learning they must retreat to the south to avoid Nazi troops that have surrounded them. It is 1942 and the American soldiers are trying their hands at desert warfare by helping out their British allies. During the retreat, the men meet a stranded bunch of Brits and a Frenchman who agree to join them in their escape. Also en route are a Sudanese officer Tambul (Rex Ingram) who has an Italian prisoner by the name of Guiseppe, played by J. Carroll Naish. They too are taken along; although, Gunn at first plans to leave the prisoner behind in order to conserve water.

     The tank is attacked by a Nazi plane but the group shoots the aircraft down and take hostage the Nazi, Captain Schletow (Kurt Kreuger), who like a character in Lifeboat pretends to know no English. The troop detours toward one supposed well to retrieve water, but finds it dry. They head to another and here is where the remainder of the plot unfolds.

     The well is only dripping water at its bottom, so the men slowly gather as much water as they can before the source runs dry. The site also has a stone building offering great shelter and a decent cell for their two prisoners. By this point Guiseppe has become quite likeable and even insults the German by explaining that Mussolini is not the genius Hitler is. He cannot convince his people as thoroughly of the virtue of his plight. Guiseppe explains that he partakes in the Italian army only because, with a wife and child, it is unwise for him to resist. He has no scruples with the soldiers that hold him hostage.

     The group is in trouble, however, when two German scouts show up at the site to check out the water supply. Waiving white flags, they confer with the Ally soldiers and have information pried from them in exchange for water. Gunn opts to tell the men there is more water than they can handle and that if they bring back their full 300-man army, the men can have all the water the want in exchange for food. This draws that brigade as the American/British/French group sets up to ambush the highly dehydrated men.

     By the time Sahara concludes, we  have lost nearly all our soldiers. What I found surprising is that the movie manages to sneak in little get-to-know-me moments throughout the picture so that we feel an emotional connection by the time each dies. Whether it be the passing of a five-dollar bill between friends or talk of family or one’s home town, all minor messages get through to us so that the audience has personal knowledge of each, without interrupting the plot to explain to us who each person is.

     Naish deserves special recognition for his role as the Italian prisoner. The man was far from Italian (a New York native of Irish decent) but was great with accents. You would never know he was not a native speaker of the language, especially since he mingles actual Italian in with the accented English he speaks. The part, which as I already mentioned is quite an endearing one, earned Naish an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.

     Sahara was based on an “incident” in a Soviet movie “The Thirteen” and was filmed in the deserts of California. Two thousand tons of sand were hauled in to allow for loose sand, and shadows were painted on hills to make them stand out. Visually, one truly does think the all-male cast is in the middle of thousands of miles-worth of desert.

  • Sahara is set for 10 p.m. ET Aug. 17 on TCM.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

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