Sahara (1995): Blood and Sand

Dave chats to the mighty Brian Trenchard-Smith about a remake that ranks as one of the director’s best.

“Belushi?! What are they doing casting Belushi?!” bellows an animated Brian Trenchard-Smith down the phone. “That’s what they said. “Oh somebody has ripped off Humphrey Bogart’s great war movie.” I mean some people don’t like Belushi, but I think he did a very solid job. If you didn’t know who Belushi was, I think you’d appreciate his performance in the film.”

The film in question is Trenchard-Smith’s SAHARA (1995), which is indeed a remake of the respected Zoltan Korda film from 1943. Sacrilege! Well, maybe not quite: as it happens, Korda’s bit of Bogey brilliance sought inspiration from elsewhere too. Based on Philip MacDonald’s 1927 war novel Patrol, Korda’s picture was the third time the book had been adapted following Lost Patrol (1929) and John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). Sahara also based a key element of its story around The Thirteen (1937), a Russian language film made in Turkmenistan by Mikhail Romm – though, really, tit for tat gatekeeping over originality is redundant anyway when you consider just how great Trenchard-Smith’s version is.

New interpretations of Golden Age classics were very much trend du jour in the cable TV arena during the 1990s. From Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt (1991), Rear Window (1998)) to classic noir (Night of the Hunter (1991), Detour (1992)), it seemed that nothing was sacred. However, the original Sahara might well have been Columbia’s highest-earner at the ’43 box office, but as far as Leonard Maltin was concerned, he questioned its familiarity to contemporary moviegoers.

“It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was once remade as It Happened One Christmas (1977) with Marlo Thomas. I couldn’t bear to watch it,” groaned the critic to the Los Angeles Times. “When you’re talking about a great original, a movie widely seen and much-loved, then there is a question of why they’re remaking it. Sahara isn’t a movie everyone knows”. [1]

Set after the fall of Tobruk, Sahara centres around Joe Gunn (Jim Belushi), a sergeant leading his squad by tank deep into the desert in order to avoid Rommel’s advancing forces. On the way, he picks up a motley crew of allied soldiers and captures a German pilot, but the swelling numbers on board only exacerbate their already desperate need for water. Eventually they find a well to quench their thirst, but soon realise it’s the target of a German battalion, forcing Gunn to decide between defending his boys’ one source of refreshment or fleeing the inevitable bombardment.

Trenchard-Smith had previous in military films having made The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1988) in the Philippines seven years prior. Sahara boasts less action than his Vietnam epic but retains the same level of edge-of-your-seat intensity with sporadic cacophonies of automatic gunfire and well-choreographed mortar explosions. Credit must also go to David Phillips’ script which finely balances dialogue lifted verbatim from Korda’s picture with  a couple of pages tweaked to replace a few overly propagandist lines.

The sight of ‘comedy actor’ Belushi stood in a desert combat uniform absorbing the hundred degree heat clearly drew quizzical expressions from the watching masses, but it really came as no surprise to see the Chicagoan playing the straight man. Ever since Curly Sue (1991) Belushi had been edging towards both drama and television. By the time Sahara came around, he’d notched up two movies for Showtime with spy flick Royce (1994) and ensemble drama Parallel Lives (1994).

“I think he’s a really good actor,” says Trenchard-Smith. “We rehearsed nightly, with ten page days and a cast who are all present and talking. So you never really had the time to analyse why you’re saying what you’re saying. So every night we would have dinner, then meet in Jim’s room and run the next day’s scenes, ask if anyone had any questions, do a little rehearsal, and then we’d all go back to our rooms, collapse, and be up again at 5AM. Sahara should have done me a lot of good, but it was just written off as another of those cable remakes of a great movie of the past. Sometimes you can’t get beyond inherent prejudice.”

Indeed, inherent prejudice was a trait that infrequently lingered over Trenchard-Smith. Though he has no remorse over his directorial choices (“I regret nothing. None of my films – even the worst ones – I don’t regret making them”), he does admit that the triple-whammy of Night of the Demons 2 (1994), Leprechaun 3 (1995) and Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996) brought about the risk of being pigeonholed.

“Well, when you make three horror-comedies in a row you are going to get pegged. Luckily for me, I had known the president of Showtime since he was a lawyer for the producer of The Siege of Firebase Gloria, and we’d had some dealings then. He’d remembered me from that film and just thought I’d be appropriate for Sahara, and he thought the movie was good which then led to Escape Clause (1996) and a few projects for some other production companies.”

Shot in eighteen days over the course of three six day weeks in Port Stephens, one-hundred miles or so north-east of Sydney, Sahara made its Showtime debut on 30th July 1995 before being picked up in most territories for a VHS release. Despite an Australian DVD emerging in the early ‘00s, the film has been stuck in 4:3 hell for over a quarter of a century, with John Stokes’ lush and expansive cinematography suffocating as a result. A shame, really, as along with The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Turkey Shoot (1982) and Dead End Drive-In (1986), Sahara is one of Trenchard-Smith’s most accomplished – and distinguished – works.

[1] Mining for Gold on the Silver Screen by Ted Johnson, Los Angeles Times, 6th May 1995.

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