Almost all war movies give the same false impression about the danger of war.
In a war movie, a character is either going to die violently or live to see the end.
This sanitized notion of war is simple and romantic. And it ignores the fact that disease and depravation has killed as many men as weaponry.
In the Civil War, for example, typhoid, typhus and dysentery killed significantly more men than bullets. If you can believe it, parents were relieved when they got a letter home saying that their little Jedediah died from a fever. That way, a fellow soldier could report that he died serenely and unafraid, a clear indication that he was on his way to heaven.
We live in an odd time. Some people believe that humans are endangering nature. This arrogant notion would be grimly amusing to the countless millions of soldiers who died of malaria, pneumonia, smallpox, tuberculosis, and scurvy – as well as simply being murdered by Mother Nature due to cold, drowning, or starvation.
Or, as happens in “Sahara,” a simple and horrible lack of drinking water.
The film takes place during the early days of the North African campaign, when things were going poorly.
A ragtag band of allied survivors are riding a rickety tank through the Libyan desert, away from the Nazis and hopefully toward an oasis.
Along the way, they pick up an Italian POW and a German pilot who they shot down. The commander, Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) makes the difficult decision to take the prisoners along and give them rations of water rather than leaving them for the vultures.
Our heroes reach the oasis just in time. But then they learn that there is an entire German battalion that is even more desperate for water than they are. So the climactic battle begins. Not for flag or country, but for hydration.
Director Zoltan Korda’s point is clear. Mother Nature is playing a game to kill us all, and she is undefeated. War is absurd. We should be working together and sharing resources, not helping Nature out by shooting each other.
However, Korda argues that World War II is a special case. The Third Reich is a uniquely contemptible enemy.
In “Sahara’s” most powerful scene, the Italian and the German prisoner argue furiously about loyalty. The Italian has naturally grown fond of the men who have saved his life and shared their water with him. The German’s only loyalty is to the Nazi cause and he vows to kill the Italian if he doesn’t go along with it.
“Sahara” is a worthy companion piece to “Casablanca.” They are both anti-war, pro-WWII films set in the violent cauldron of colonial North Africa.
Plus, “Sahara” offers the definitive top-3 list of frightening things that are out to kill you:
2. Mother Nature