Sahara (1943 American film)

Sahara is a 1943 American black-and-white war film drama from Columbia Pictures, directed by Zoltán Korda, that stars Humphrey Bogart as an American tank commander in Libya during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The storyline is based on a story by Philip MacDonald[3] (Patrol) and an incident depicted in the 1936 Soviet film The Thirteen by Mikhail Romm. Later, Sahara was remade by André de Toth as a Western called Last of the Comanches (1953), and three decades later by Brian Trenchard-Smith as the American-Australian made-for-television film Sahara (1995).[4]

Theatrical release poster
Directed byZoltán Korda
Produced byHarry Joe Brown
Written byPhilip MacDonald (story)
James O'Hanlon
John Howard Lawson (screenplay)
Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
StarringHumphrey Bogart
Bruce Bennett
Lloyd Bridges
J. Carrol Naish
Dan Duryea
Music byMiklós Rózsa
CinematographyRudolph Maté
Edited byCharles Nelson
Columbia Pictures
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • November 11, 1943 (1943-11-11)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.3 million[1][2]

Events are depicted which point to the Battle of Gazala, an important battle of the Western Desert Campaign, fought around the port of Tobruk in Libya. Bogart makes reference to events that occurred in May–June 1942. The battle had begun with the British stronger in terms of both numbers and quality of equipment, after having received many of the American M3 tanks (also the tank seen in the film). A small group of American advisors and crews trained the British in the use of the equipment.

The British forces were routed, and as shown in Sahara, many tanks were damaged, but were unable to be salvaged due to the 8th Army's retreat. The British lost virtually all their tanks, although a small number were evacuated. General Rommel pursued the British into Egypt, trying to keep British forces under pressure and denying them the opportunity to regroup. As both sides neared exhaustion, the British were able to check Rommel's advance at the First battle of El Alamein. Bogart and his M3 crew are able to rally before hearing a radio report about the British victory.[5]


The crew of an M3 Lee tank, attached to the British Eighth Army, commanded by U.S. Army Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart), and nicknamed Lulu Belle, become separated from their unit during a general retreat from German forces after the fall of Tobruk. Heading south across the Libyan Desert to rejoin the rest of their unit, they come across a bombed-out field hospital, where they pick up a motley collection of stragglers, among them British Army medical officer Captain Halliday (Richard Nugent), four Commonwealth soldiers and Free French Corporal Leroux (Louis Mercier). Halliday, the only officer, cedes command to Gunn.

The group comes upon Sudanese Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish). Tambul volunteers to lead them to a well at Hassan Barani. Gunn insists that the Italian be left behind, but, after driving a few hundred feet, relents and lets him join the others.

En route, Luftwaffe pilot Captain von Schletow (Kurt Kreuger) strafes the tank, seriously wounding Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges), one of the British soldiers. The German fighter aircraft is shot down and von Schletow is captured. Arriving at Hassan Barani, the group finds the well is dry. Clarkson succumbs to his wounds and they bury him there.

Tambul guides them to the desert well at Bir Acroma, but it is almost dry, providing only a trickle of water, and the group must delay their departure until they can collect as much as they can. When German scouts arrive soon afterwards, in a half-track, Gunn sets up an ambush.

Gunn finds out from one of the two survivors that their mechanized battalion, desperate for water, is following close behind. He persuades the others to make a stand to delay the Germans while Waco (Bruce Bennett) takes the half-track in search of reinforcements. The two Germans are released to carry back an offer: "food for water", even though there is hardly any water left.

When the Germans arrive in force, Gunn changes the deal to "water for guns". The well has completely dried up by then but a battle of wills begins between Gunn and Major von Falken (John Wengraf), the German commander. Gunn keeps up the pretense that the well has much water and negotiates to buy time. The Germans attack and are beaten off again and again, but one by one, the defenders are killed.

During one attack, von Schletow tries to escape, stabbing Giuseppe (who gathers up courage to denounce fascism) in the process, but before he dies Giuseppe manages to warn Gunn. Tambul chases von Schletow down and kills him before he can tell the Germans the truth about the well, but Tambul is shot dead. After a second parley, von Falken has his men shoot Leroux in the back as the Frenchman returns to his own side. Gunn and his men fire back, killing von Falken.

The Germans' final assault turns into a full-blown surrender as they drop their weapons and claw across the sand towards the well. To Gunn's shock, he discovers that a German shell that exploded in the well has tapped into a source of water. Gunn and Bates (Patrick O'Moore), the only other Allied survivor, disarm the Germans while they drink. As they are marching their prisoners east, Gunn and Bates encounter Allied troops guided by Waco. They receive news of the Allied victory at the First Battle of El Alamein, turning back Rommel's Afrika Korps.



The lead role was initially offered to Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford and Brian Donlevy before Bogart.[6] According to Hedda Hopper, Donlevy's wife, Marjorie Lane, was expecting a baby and he didn't want to be stuck on location.[7] (A daughter, Judy, was born Feb. 20.) Variety, however, reported that Donlevy was tired of making war films and Bogart was weary of gangster roles, so the actors swapped assignments; Donlevy stepped into My Friend Curley (released as Once Upon a Time in 1944) and Bogart took Somewhere in the Sahara (the film's working title).[8]

Production began on 29 January 1943, and wrapped on 17 April 1943. The cast and crew spent eleven weeks on location in the Imperial County, California, portion of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near the Salton Sea. Their base was at the Planter's Hotel in Brawley, Calif., about 50 miles (80 km) east of the location.[6] Soldiers and equipment of the U.S. 4th Armored Division, then in training at the Desert Training Center, were used as extras.[9][Note 1] The soldiers were billeted in tents at the location.[6]

The German aircraft depicted attacking the tank was in actuality an early, Allison-powered P-51 Mustang, painted in German markings. Because no Sdkf-251 half-track nor MG-34 machine guns were available for the production, U.S. Army equipment was substituted. The captured German half-track is an American M2 with a M49 ring mounted with a Vickers medium machine gun. The American tank, nicknamed "Lullubelle," was a 28-ton (25.4 t) medium tank with 30 and 50 caliber machine guns and a 75 millimeter canon. The tank required 100 octane fuel.

In 1992, Kurt Kreuger was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle on the emotions inherent in making the film, in which he portrayed a stereotypical Nazi:

I was running across the dunes when Tambul jumped on top of me and pressed my head into the sand to suffocate me. Only Zoltán forgot to yell cut, and Ingram was so emotionally caught up in the scene that he kept pressing my face harder and harder.

Finally, I went unconscious. Nobody knew this. Even the crew was transfixed, watching this dramatic 'killing.' If Zoltán hadn't finally said cut, as an afterthought, it would have been all over for me.[10]

The production was beset by the usual difficulties on a desert location: sunburn, sandstorms, and heat. Korda had 2,000 tons of sand hauled onto the set to cover an area of hard-packed soil. Ripples and swirls in the sand were enhanced by painting the sand and then blowing it with a wind machine. Similarly, shadows were spray-painted on the hills to make them stand out.[11] Makeup artist Henry Pringle devised a technique to imitate facial perspiration by coating the actors' faces with vaseline and then spraying them with water.[12] Bogart's third wife, Mayo Methot, the only woman on location, reportedly brought him lunch every day from Brawley. (Later in 1943 Bogart met Lauren Bacall, his co-star in To Have and Have Not and eventual fourth wife.) Some of the cast went to nearby Mexicali for dinners.[11]


Reviews of Sahara generally were positive, with Variety noting, "Script [adapted by James O'Hanlon from a story by Philip MacDonald] is packed with pithy dialog, lusty action and suspense, and logically and well-devised situations avoiding ultra-theatrics throughout. It's an all-male cast, but absence of romance is not missed in the rapid-fire unfolding of vivid melodrama."[13]

Critic Nelson B. Bell, in The Washington Post, called it "one of the best-balanced of the starker war pictures ... that by turns is tortured, compassionate, thrilling and always of engrossing interest."[14]

The Boston Globe called the film "brilliantly acted ... 'Sahara' doesn't spare the punches–they hit you in the face emotionally and it is literally impossible to sit unmoved through this vivid story. There isn't a smidgen of love interest in the picture and not a woman in the cast. This is war. There are deaths and tragedies—but there's a final ironic triumph, too. Sergt. Gunn holds the power of life or death over an Italian prisoner, and when J. Carroll Naish pleads for his life, the scene is one of the most poignant of the year's film moments."[15]

Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times concentrated on the star-power of Bogart. "Those rugged, indomitable qualities which Humphrey Bogart has so masterfully displayed in most of his recent pictures—and even before, in his better gangster roles—have been doubled and concentrated in "Sahara," a Columbia film about warfare in the Libyan desert, which came to the Capitol yesterday. And a capital picture it is, too—as rugged as Mr. Bogart all the way and in a class with that memorable picture which it plainly resembles, The Lost Patrol."[16]

New York Herald Tribune critic Otis L. Guernsey Jr. praised Bogart's understated style, calling it "exactly what is needed in war melodramas, which have too often been overstated to the point of ridicule. It has been used to best advantage in this instance. It is good to see a portrayal of an American soldier who looks on the war with a certain amount of distaste, but who faces both death and good fortune with persistent courage and realistic calm." Korda's direction was also called "excellent ... The action and pictorial footage is more important than the dialogue ..."[17]

Sahara earned three Oscar nominations: Best Sound (John Livadary), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) (Rudolph Maté), and Best Supporting Actor by J. Carrol Naish for his role as an Italian prisoner.[18]

The tank commanded by Sgt. Tree (Dan Aykroyd) in director Steven Spielberg's World War II comedy film 1941 is named "Lulubelle" as a homage to Sahara.



  1. The film's dedication is to the "IV Armored Corps of the Army Ground Forces", the training organization to which the 4th Armored Division was attached in early 1943. In addition to equipment, the division's reconnaissance unit, the 84th Reconnaissance Battalion (Armored), supplied 100 enlisted men as extras to portray German soldiers.[9]


  1. Schatz 1999, p. 218.
  2. "Top Grossers of the Season", Variety, 5 January 1944, p. 54
  3. THE SCREEN; ' Sahara,' an Exciting Picture of Desert War, With Humphrey Bogart as a Heroic Sergeant, Is New Feature at the Capitol, Bosley Crowther, November 12, 1943, The New York Times.
  4. Miller, John H. "Sahara (1943)." Turner Classic Movies ( Retrieved: December 17, 2014.
  5. Barr 2005, p. 39.
  6. Niemi, Robert. "One Hundred Great War Movies." ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-4408-3386-1
  7. Hopper, Hedda. "Looking at Hollywood." Chicago Daily Tribune. 19 Jan 1943: 14
  8. Variety 20 Jan 1943 : 4.
  9. Koyen, Kenneth. "War in the Sahara, Bogart Style." Eve's Magazine, 2001. Retrieved: December 17, 2014.
  10. Bernstein, Adam. "Kurt Kreuger, 89, actor portrayed Nazis (obituary)." The Washington Post, July 21, 2006. Retrieved: December 23, 2014.
  11. "Location Diary." Chicago Daily Tribune 20 June 1943: C3.
  12. Look. 16 Nov 1943.
  13. "Review: Sahara". Variety, December 31, 1942.
  14. "'Sahara', at the Earle, Is Grim But Gripping Drama." The Washington Post. Oct 23, 1943; p.6
  15. Daily Boston Globe. 05 Nov 1943: 31.
  16. Crowther, Bosley. "Sahara (1943); The screen: ' Sahara,' an exciting picture of desert war, with Humphrey Bogart as a heroic sergeant, is new feature at the Capitol." The New York Times, November 12, 1943.
  17. Guernsey, Otis L, Jr. New York Herald Tribune 12 Nov 1943: 14.
  18. "Nominees and Winners: The 16th Academy Awards (1944)." Retrieved: December 23, 2014.


  • Barr, Niell. Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2005. ISBN 978-1-58567-738-2.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-52022-130-7.
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