There’s something unique about war movies made while the conflict they portray is still raging. They tend to offer a snapshot of the sensibilities of the general public at a time of great uncertainty and, while often rife with unfortunate racial stereotypes, these movies are mercifully free of the historical revisionism that plagues many latter day films about that same conflict.
"Sahara" is a superb war movie that is very much a product of its time but which still manages to offer up a few surprises. Humphrey Bogart stars as Sgt. Gunn, commander of the American tank Lulubelle which has been sent as part of a small contingent to North Africa to gain some firsthand fighting experience. After the Allies are routed by the German Afrika Korps, Gunn and his men beat a hasty retreat as the only tank crew still running. Along the way they meet up with a group of British medical personnel, a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner, and they also manage to shoot down a German fighter pilot and take him prisoner. This ragtag group piles onto old Lulubelle as Gunn makes tracks for a desert oasis before their fuel and water run out. Finally reaching the oasis they are surrounded by a superior enemy force and Gunn must find a way to keep his group together and buy some time until reinforcements arrive.
"Sahara" was released in 1943 and even a cursory look at how the American and German soldiers are portrayed reinforces the fact that this was a wartime film. The Americans are wise-cracking and tough as nails while the Germans are distinctly Aryan, evil, and seemingly unstoppable by all but our heroic American boys. Surprisingly however, this is where the usual stereotypes end as the Italian prisoner is portrayed in a positive light and the black Sudanese soldier, Sgt. Tambul, is not only respected and treated as an equal (expect, of course, by the German POW) he also stands as the epitome of the professional fighting man. All in all, "Sahara" offers up a very well-balanced portrayal of the multi-national and multi-ethnic soldiers participating in a truly global conflict and there are precious few films from that era that can claim to do the same.
"Sahara" is presented in its original full screen format and the black and white transfer is fairly solid with only the regular occurrence of minor blemishes on the print detracting from the overall quality. The image is nice and sharp with good black levels and balanced highlights. The resulting contrast runs the entire gamut of gradients, adding very much to the very filmlike appearance. The compression of the transfer has been very carefully, making sure none of the details in the image were lost, and as such the presentation is free of compression artifacts of any sort.
Audio comes in English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes. Given the technical limitations of movies of the time, the soundtrack is obviously very limited in dynamic range but it is mercifully free of any major hiss, distortion or sibilance. The frequency response is also limtied due to the technical limtiations, and the track appears harsh at times without the bass extension we have gotten used to in modern productions. For a film of this vintage however, that’s really not a detractor, as it maintains the original feel of the film without being so obtrusive as to distract from the experience.
The extras on this release include some very perfunctory filmographies, a few stills of vintage posters, and trailers for "The Caine Mutiny," "Bridge on the River Kwai," and "The Guns of Navarone" but interestingly not one for "Sahara" itself.
"Sahara" is an excellent movie that benefits from a strong story by John Howard Lawson, fine direction by Zoltan Korda, and uniformly superb acting from the cast. Filmed in the Southern California desert, "Sahara" actually looks like it was shot on location lending an air of believability to the movie that is missing from many of its contemporary war films which try to pass off Burbank as Burma. Columbia TriStar’s new DVD offers up a good technical presentation of the film and "Sahara" is highly recommended for fans of Bogart and World War Two movies in general.