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Sahara (1943)

The weeks and months leading up to the Battle of El Alamien in October 1942 would prove to be among the most crucial in the Allied war effort, as Montogmery's defeat of Rommel gave the British their first unqualified victory against the Germans and kept northern Africa from falling to the Axis powers. However — according to Zoltan Korda's fictional 1943 Sahara — Monty was helped by at least one unseen force. Humphrey Bogart stars as U.S. Army Sgt. Joe Gunn, whose tank crew is on a joint exercise with the British Army in Libya. Forced into retreat by a collapsed front line, Gunn's tank (the "Lulubelle") comes across a squad of stranded British soldiers, and it soon becomes clear that the only way to escape the Germans will be to drive due south, where they hope to find water. But as the group travels, their representative numbers grow — the Brits have a French Resistance tag-along (Louis Mercier) who hates the Nazis more than anyone, they run across a Sudanese soldier (Rex Ingram) with an Italian prisoner (J. Carrol Naish), and before long a German pilot (Kurt Kreuger) is shot down and taken prisoner as well. With an overburdened tank and dwindling rations, Gunn realizes that his first priority is to obtain water — not an easy chore, and made more difficult when it's discovered a German motorized infantry is also astray and looking for water in the endless sea of sand. One of the greatest films of the "lost patrol" mode, Sahara is a stirring tale carefully designed to sustain support at home for the Allied cause, but oddly enough it's based on the 1936 Soviet film The Thirteen, about a group of Russian soldiers attacked by Asian bandits, and Sahara was remade in 1952 as The Last of the Comanches, with a cavalry fleeing Indian attacks. It may have a thin veneer of propaganda, but at its core Sahara is a sturdy, multi-character action picture with near-universal appeal. Bogart, as Sgt. Gunn, delivers a typical Bogart performance, which is to say it's great fun. Coming off marquee turns in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, one suspects that those behind the scenes hoped to catch lightning in a bottle by getting the major star in the middle of the war (or at least in the middle of California's Imperial Valley desert). And despite the fact that Bogie delivers all of his lines with that inimitable patter more befitting a gumshoe or a saloon-keeper, his grim resolve makes the role work. Also offering good performances are Lloyd Bridges, Bruce Bennett, and Richard Nugent, and Korda's skill at pacing an action film keeps this one humming right up to the gripping final minutes. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Sahara, part of the "Columbia Classics" series, features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with audio in the original mono (DD 2.0), but the source print can be troublesome: Most of the time it's overly dark, and while we can expect a certain amount of flecking on older titles, Sahara exhibits a general wear more often associated with late-night TV than new DVD releases. The film is still watachable — and enjoyable — but one hopes that a better version exists somewhere, or that a restoration will be undertaken someday. Features include bonus trailers and a gallery of lobby cards. Keep-case.

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