A Surprisingly Riveting War Drama

1943 | Approved | 1h 37m | Action, Drama, War

When we think about great World War II action films, we usually don’t think of tank warfare, at least from an American perspective. Well, not until the excellent 2014 movie “Fury,” starring Brad Pitt, reminded folks that tank crews can be as heroic as anyone else. Before that anomaly, World War II films tended to focus on infantry combat, even though tank warfare was an instrumental part of the conflict.

However, in 1943, Hungarian-born director Zoltan Korda gave the world a taste of what tank crews went through with his highly entertaining drama “Sahara,” based on a 1927 novel “Patrol” by British author Philip MacDonald.

Korda couldn’t have chosen a better star than Humphrey Bogart to head up the fantastic cast. It also features a lean script, as well as a peppy pace that packs a lot of character-driven drama into its one-hour, thirty-seven-minute running time.

The Retreat

The film’s title card gives a little background for the proceedings: “In June 1942, a small detachment of American tanks with American crews joined the British Eighth Army in North Africa to get experience in desert warfare under actual battle conditions. History has proved that they learned their lesson well.”

Bogart plays tank commander Sergeant Joe Gunn, a no-nonsense type who talks to his M3 medium tank (affectionately called “Lulubelle”) as if it were a “dame” with actual human emotions. Gunn and what remains of his crew, Waco Hoyt (Bruce Bennett) and Jimmy Doyle (Dan Duryea), are fighting it out in North Africa against Rommel’s forces when they get a general retreat order after the Fall of Tobruk (Tobruk was a major strategic point in Northwest Libya).

sahara tank
Although a tank, “Lulubelle” almost seems like a loyal character to “her” crew, in “Sahara.” (Columbia Pictures)

As they withdraw, the crew comes across an Allied field hospital in the middle of the desert containing a small gaggle of international troops, including British Capt. Jason Halliday (Richard Aherne), fellow Brit Fred Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges sporting a breezy British accent), Frenchman Leroux (Louis Mercier), and a few others. After a little saber rattling, Gunn offers to transport the men as they withdraw. Halliday, the only officer, reluctantly agrees.

As the men and their metal transport continue to rumble across the scorching dunes of Libya, their mouths become increasingly parched. They know that a lack of water is as deadly as any German bullet. Therefore, they begin to strictly ration their water reserves.

Lulubelle suddenly sputters and dies out, prompting Gunn to attend to “her” as usual. One of the British soldiers takes this opportunity to slurp down a little too much water and Gunn snatches the man’s canteen out of his hands, causing the soldier to raise protests to Halliday. It is at this point that Halliday realizes Gunn has much more experience in the desert than he does, so the officer humbly cedes command over to Gunn—his inferior in terms of rank.

sahara--soldiers behind gun
Capt. Jason Halliday (Richard Aherne, L) and Sgt. Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart), in “Sahara.” (Columbia Pictures)

Soon, they spot two men—a British Sudanese officer and his Italian prisoner of war, walking in the desert. The Sudanese man, Sgt. Maj. Tambul (Rex Ingram), tells Gunn and Halliday that he may know where a water well is located. Gunn quickly offers Tambul a ride. However, Gunn wants to leave the Italian POW, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish) to die in the desert, even as Halliday protests.

Giuseppe pleads with Gunn, desperately telling him that he has relatives in America and a wife and daughter at back home in Italy, but Gunn shoves him away. In an emotional scene, the buzzards begin to circle above Giuseppe as the tank lumbers on. Will Gunn have second thoughts?

sahara-soldier in desert
Italian prisoner of war Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish) gathers up pictures and letters from his wife back home as he is left stranded in the desert, in “Sahara.” (Columbia Pictures)

More Drama Than Action

This film surprised me, big time. Whereas I know Bogart was an incredible performer, I thought this movie would put action first and drama somewhere on a back burner. Boy, was I wrong. Most of the action doesn’t take place until around the film’s third act. This leaves plenty of time for viewers to get acquainted with the characters as they struggle to survive one of the most inhospitable environments in the world—while at war, to boot.

Bogart is very convincing as a hardboiled Army sergeant trying to keep his men safe as best he can under dire circumstances. The rest of the supporting cast handle their roles with consummate skill as well. In a testament to the film’s gravitas, I was really rooting for Gunn and his men by the time the bullets started flying—not wanting any of them to die.

The writing is also excellent. There isn’t any superfluousness here—no unnecessary filler scenes inserted in order to add more to the tale, in the form of melodramatic story arcs. Instead, what we get with “Sahara” is a gritty, riveting war drama that transports us to another place and time, far off in a no man’s land, with characters who are believable and multidimensional. It’s one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen.

Director: Zoltan Korda
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Bruce Bennett, J. Carrol Naish
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 11, 1943
Rated: 5 stars out of 5


Ian Kane


Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.

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