Living Well: Gunning through the Sahara

The horrors of combat are made more palatable to civilian audiences when the role of Sergeant is played not by some stereotypical tough guy, but by the affable likes of Humphrey Bogart, the most distinguished leading man of 1940s cinema. In Zoltán Korda’s Sahara (1943), Bogey employs his calm, laidback personae to the character of Sergeant Joe Gunn, who helms a crew of assorted allies stalled mid-desert in pursuit of water.

Sahara conveys the wartime principle of self sacrifice, in which the will of the individual is surrendered to the greater good of the group. Most of these men will die, yet each death is met with the overarching purpose of forestalling and depleting the enemy; a fate that each man has bravely accepted. After the fearless Sudanese Sergeant Tambul crosses enemy lines to snuff the crew’s scheming Nazi-captive, he runs back brazenly through the storm of fire; not because he thinks he’ll survive, but merely to get within viewing range of Gunn to deliver a triumphant thumbs up.

The militaristic notion of numbers – in which human loss is treated as collateral damage in the ultimate goal of victory – is a foreign concept to most civilian viewers. Sahara eases the blow by steering clear of large scale combat scenes, focusing instead on the minute concerns of getting from one desert well to the next. The suspense to Sahara is delivered in a manner so dry that the anti-climax – in which Gunn and his last remaining ally stand like sacrificial lambs before an onslaught of German soldiers; only to see the Germans slump before the well, famished and fightless – rings comedic.

Modern day viewers, nonetheless, have waged varying forms of criticism towards Sahara. Some collegiate feminists have extrapolated that Sahara is a sexist film, simply because it contains no female cast members. But considering how this film deals with a male-centric scenario (combat) which stems from a male-centric concept (warfare) – the consequence of dispute between differing parties in the ultimate construct of male ingenuity (civilization) – one could sensibly conclude that a film like Sahara calls for an all-male cast. Others have criticized Sahara for its inaccurate depiction of a racially integrated military, citing how the US military was actually segregated up until 1948. When one considers the role that war films play in shaping popular sentiment, however, this portrayal of integrated teamwork could be viewed as Hollywood’s ultimate public service statement.

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