The 1943 movie Sahara pits a motley Allied tank crew against the Nazis—and against a desert where death by thirst is only one empty canteen away.
Sahara is a classic. And startling gritty even by today’s standards.
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Dan Duryea, Bruce Bennett, Richard Nugent, and J. Carrol Naish—who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Italian prisoner Giuseppe—the film also features one of the U.S. Army’s most under-appreciated tanks. The M-3 Lee.
This medium tank was far from perfect. It had a hulking silhouette that was hard to miss even from a distance. Its riveted hull pelted the crew with metal fragments every time it took a hit. Its old-fashioned sponsoon-mounted main gun suffered from limited movement.
But in 1942 the Allies didn’t have a lot of options. In Sahara, the M-3 Lullu Belle shelters 10 men in sand storms, protects them from Luftwaffe strafing and hauls them through trackless desert in search of life-saving water.
American forces including armor invaded Algeria and Morocco in November 1942, part of the British plan to attack the Axis on their edges, regain control of the Mediterranean and eventually expose the enemy’s southern flank.
Before the main American assault, a small number of U.S. tanks and their crews joined the British 8th Army in order to train the Brits on the Lee. The American advisers were just in time to get caught up in the chaotic aftermath of German general Erwin Rommel’s resounding victory at Tobruk, where the film’s story begins.
Director Zoltán Korda shot Sahara at the Army’s vast California Desert Training Center near the Salton Sea with the full cooperation of IV Armor Corps. To portray Master Sgt. Joe Gunn, Bogart combines his military experience—he was a sailor during World War I—with his signature tough-guy persona.
But what makes Sahara more than just another World War II action film is how it answers a reasonable question. Why fight this war?
The Army is the only home Gunn has ever known. But he doesn’t fight for fighting’s sake. He considers the Nazis repugnant. He’ll fight them even if it means confronting a superior German force in an inadequate tank.
Lullu Belle’s lop-sided battle with the Germans at Bir Acroma might strike us as stupid. But 1943 was a different time. Allied victory was not a foregone conclusion. Gunn and crew’s crazy stand really meant something when the Allies might actually lose the war.
Surprisingly for the time, Sahara addresses race. It’s one of the few wartime combat films featuring a black actor in a prominent role. The exquisite Rex Ingram—famous for his roles as Jim in the 1939 MGM classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and as The Genie in Alexander Korda’s 1940 Technicolor spectacular The Thief of Baghdad—portrays Sudanese sergeant major Tambul.
The film depicts Tambul as a brave, intelligent and honorable soldier without a hint of Hollywood’s black stereotype—a bold move when you consider that both the U.S. military and the nation were segregated at the time.
Tambul and Duryea’s character Waco Hoyt share a smoke and a canteen cup of water while discussing the different marriage practices of Christians and Muslims. There are no whites-only drinking fountains in North Africa. What matters most is whether a soldier does his job well.
Tambul does his job very well. Check out his gleeful expression as he carefully aims a Thompson M1921 submachine gun at oncoming Afrika Korps soldiers. He kills on German soldier by grinding his face into the sand.
You don’t see scenes like that in your typical 1940s war flick. As far as I’m concerned, the Academy nominated the wrong man for Best Supporting Actor.
Sahara is superb combination of action, acting and deep themes. It ranks among Bogart’s better films … and also among the best World War II movies.