On a Sunday afternoon In the year 1950, When I was ten years old, my father Myron Stanley took me to the Uptown Theater in downtown Napa to see a Humphrey Bogart classic, Sahara. That week across America was the first time the film had been shown since its initial release in 1943. (Sorry, we didn’t have VCR machines in those days, and back then you could only see a Hollywood-made movie in a theater . . . . until such time as a film was released to television. (In the case of Sahara, that didn’t happen until the mid-1950s.)
The Columbia Studio release was a desert-warfare adventure of World War II that remains one of the more engaging and believable of propaganda movies of that period. One reason it might have been overlooked is that it has none of the romantic elements that earmark most of Bogart’s films. Instead it shows Bogart’s rugged, calloused side in uncompromising terms.
Directed by Zoltan Korda, the brother of British producer Alexander Korda, Sahara is a hard-edged, realistic account of how Bogart and his tank crew (Dan Duryea and Bruce Bennett), cut off from their own lines in the North African desert after the Allied defeat at Tobruk, join up with a handful of British soldiers and other stragglers to hold off an isolated German battalion and prevent it from fighting in the battle of El Alamein. (Cinematographer Rudolph Mate was nominated for best black-and-white photography that year, but he did not win the Oscar.)
Bogart’s Sergeant Joe Gunn, a man without a home except for his tank Lulubelle, on which he plans to ride into Berlin at war’s end, is a battle-hardened regular who shapes his ragtag outfit of desert rats into a fighting unit. Sahara also depicts a grim side to war that wasn’t always reflected in films of the period, showing the faces of the dead in close-up and capturing a sense of thirst among men deprived of life-giving water.
In shots beautifully framed by cinematographer Rudolph Mate, a sense is evoked of isolation and loneliness in a desert whipped by windstorms. In one scene, shifting sand almost resembles rippling water as the granules slide past the half-buried face of a semi-delirious Bruce Bennett.
J. Carrol Naish’s performance as a sympathetic Italian prisoner of war earned him an Oscar nomination, and the scene in which Bogart decides to leave him to die in the desert remains one of the grimmest in the Bogart canon. Then there is a sequence where each surviving member of the group is entitled to three swallows of water.
No more than three. And there is anguish on the faces of all the men as the canteen is silently passsed from man to man. All this stunning imagery is accompanied by a music score by Miklos Rosza that ranks as one of his most provocative.
One of the few surviving members of the cast, at the time I was writing my story about Sahara for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992, was German-born Kurt Kreuger, who portrays a Nazi fighter pilot who is shot down by Bogart’s tank crew and taken captive when he parachutes to the ground. Kreuger was 25 when the film was made in a sand-dune region near the Salton Sea, located in the southeast corner of California. He clearly remembers how Bogart held court every night in the Imperial Valley after a hot day of desert filming.
“We were staying at a hotel in Brawley, about an hour from the film locations,” Kreuger recalled from his home in Beverly Hills. “Each night it was like a command performance for all the cast to show up in Bogart’s suite, where he and his wife Mayo Methot, would entertain all hands. I don’t drink but I would still show up, have a ginger ale, chat with Bogart and then leave after a little while. It wold have been considered an insult not to have shown up.”
Bogart, Kreuger continued, “was a heavy drinker. One day I was called late to the set and rode out to the location with Mayo at my side. She was carrying a thermos bottle. I told her she didn’t need it, there was always a coffee machine on the set. She told me, ‘Honey, these’re my ice-cold martinis for Bogie. He wants them and needs them.’ I guess Bogie did need his booze but he never appeared drunk and he never caused any delays.”
According to Kreuger, Bogart “was very supportive of all of us. In my case he realized this was my big break. Until ‘Sahara’ I’d had small roles, but nothing as good as the Nazi pilot I was playing.” Bogart, he continued, “was always very cordial to everyone on the set. There were no star superficialities about him. He always spoke his mind directly. He would ask me about the old country [Germany] and how I felt about what was happening under Hitler. He was always interested in what you had to say.”
Sahara, as it turned out, was a major release that served as Kreuger’s stepping-stone to a full-blown career as a contract player at 20th Century-Fox, where he co-starred in such films as Mademoiselle Fifi, Madame Pimpernel and Unfaithfully Yours. He also played his share of dirty-rat Nazis until war’s end.
Kreuger’s Nazi in Sahara is an arrogant, proud Aryan, a show model for Hitler’s Master Race. In one scene he doesn’t want to be touched by a Sudanese soldier (excellently portrayed by Rex Ingram) because that character, Tambul, is a member of “an inferior race.” “Tell Hitler not to worry,” Bogart replies. “The black won’t rub off on his uniform.”
Kreuger’s death scene is a classic metaphor for the fight against Nazism that was then raging: A member of an “inferior race” gets the drop on a member of Hitler’s “Master Race.”
Kreuger recalled his death scene all too vividly. “It almost turned out to be real,” he said without a trace of humor. “I was running across the dunes when Tambul [Ingram] jumped on top of me and pressed my head into the sand to suffocate me.
Only Zoltan, the director, 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 Zoltan hadn’t finally said cut, as an afterthought, it would have been all over for me.”