I spent yesterday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre watching a terrific war movie double-feature. I had the pleasure of introducing SAHARA and SERGEANT YORK to an appreciative audience and I enjoyed both films immensely. SAHARA is a good movie, SERGEANT YORK is a great movie. I recommend both films to anyone who likes classic Hollywood movies, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and stories of heroes. Sound like just the thing for Memorial Day movie watching. Here are my notes for the films.
In the 1940s, as the United States was caught up in the global conflict of World War II, moviegoers needed reassurance that things would ultimately turn out okay. The U.S. and its’ allies (Great Britain and Russia), would surely prevail against the Axis forces of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. After all, the Allied Forces (U.S., Great Britain and France) had won out in the previous world war against Germany and they would most certainly do so again. Nonetheless, it didn’t hurt to provide anxious film goers with reminders of the indomitable and undefeated fighting spirit of the U.S. armed forces and Hollywood was quick and happy to provide such material. There were numerous Hollywood war films produced during the 1940s and almost every one of them stressed one thing: the U.S. would not be defeated in foreign theaters of combat operations.
Here’s a bit of history to consider. The conflict that we now refer to as World War I was never called that while the fighting was taking place, nor was it referred to by that name for the years immediately after the war was over. It was called simply The Great War. After all, labeling the conflict World War I at the time would have implied that surely another worldwide conflagration was due in the future and no one was predicting that. Instead, The Great War or, The War to End All Wars, only became known as World War I in hindsight when a second such global war erupted in September, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. When Howard Hawks’ flag-waving Great War epic Sergeant York was released in July, 1941, the United States was still not fighting in World War II. That would all change in a matter of months.
Sergeant York is one of the greatest of war sagas because it is the true story of a simple man who accomplishes extraordinary feats through quiet determination and faith. Sergeant Alvin York was the most decorated American soldier of WWI and Gary Cooper deservedly won acclaim for his portrayal of the famed WWI hero (York himself insisted that Cooper take the role if his story was filmed) from rural east Tennessee. At first hot-headed, with fast fists and no direction, Cooper first changes his life with hard work meant to earn land for a farm that will win him the hand of Joan Leslie. He then takes a devout turn after divine intervention prevents him from murdering his rival for Leslie’s affections. Reluctantly enlisted in WWI after denied conscientious objector status, Cooper performs heroic feats motivated by his desire to stop a German machine-gun nest from killing. Upon his return, Cooper is greeted with parades, Leslie’s love, and a farm of his own presented by the people of Tennessee, a bounty that Cooper ascribes to God’s grace.
Sergeant York is an extremely compelling story, expertly directed by Howard Hawks. The themes of inner strength from inspired purpose are first seen in York’s personal struggles and then later in his actions on behalf of his comrades. Sergeant York received eleven Academy Award nominations including: Best Picture, Best Director (Hawks), Best Actor (Cooper, winner), Best Supporting Actor (Brennan), Best Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly), Best Original Screenplay (Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, John Huston and Howard Koch), Best Editing (William Holmes, winner), Best Art Direction (John Hughes and Fred MacLean), Best Cinematography (Sol Polito) and Best Music (Max Steiner). The film ranks number fifty-seven on the American Film Institute’s list of one hundred most inspirational American films and Alvin York is rated number thirty-five on the AFI list of top fifty heroes in American film.
By the time Sahara was released in November 1943, American troops had already had their first bitter taste of defeat at the hands of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in fighting in North Africa. That situation was quickly remedied by the leadership of General George Patton. Sahara is a premier WWII adventure film set under the relentless, blistering Saharan sun in which Humphrey Bogart commands a crippled tank retreating into the Libyan desert. As the crew desperately searches for water, the tank squad picks up various stragglers from defeated Allied units. The growing band fights off air attacks and then vies with a Nazi battalion for a nearly dry well at a desert ghost town. There, Bogart spurs the defeated, parched men into making a stand against the overwhelming numbers of Germans.
At a time when most Hollywood films were predictable and formulaic, Sahara is never predictable thanks to the script by John Howard Lawson (who was later blacklisted in the 1950s as a member of the alleged communist sympathizers The Hollywood Ten) which fills the screen with action and memorable characters. Sahara received three Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actor (J. Carrol Naish), Best Sound (John Livadary) and Best Cinematography (Rudolph Mate).