The Combat Film and Propaganda: How Sahara Illustrates the Fears of a Nation

From 1941 to 1945, American culture took a dramatic shift towards patriotism as war raged on overseas. The thought of World War II conjures images not only of men fighting abroad, but of the home front; junk drives, victory gardens, rationing, and respect for the government are prevalent themes in literature and films set during this time. While the actuality of these events is unknown except to the people that lived them, much of the knowledge held by younger generations of the United States during World War II has been passed down largely through the media. Films made in the era present an America that is not afraid to sacrifice comforts and face fears to aid in the war effort. Wartime films represent a special relationship between the United States government and Hollywood. In the 1943 film Sahara, Humphrey Bogart plays the quintessential American soldier; tall, handsome, and authoritative, Bogart’s character epitomizes the kind of strength and virility that the American government thought fighting men should have. Sahara is riddled with wartime tropes straight out of the pages of the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. This film, and films like it, help create the cultural memory of World War II that Americans cling to generations later. Although it might not be a perfect, factual representation of events that occurred, Sahara presents the viewer with a patriotic challenge: will you, the American on the home front, sacrifice what you hold dear to help the men who have given up their freedom and comfort to protect yours?

During World War II, the newly formed Office of War Information, or OWI, gained enormous control over the content released by Hollywood. Recognizing the increasing cultural influence of the movies and hoping to harness the power of propaganda, the Roosevelt administration began strengthening the relationship between the film industry and the government with the creation of the OWI, the nation’s official propaganda machine.1 In June 1942, the office released the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, a comprehensive document stating the agency’s goals and standards for wartime film.2 By directly controlling Hollywood’s cultural output, the OWI was able to create a lens through which the American public viewed not only the war itself, but their role in the war as citizens of the United States. The first page of the code states, “Unless every American clearly understands how much he has at stake, the nation cannot gear itself to the all-out effort necessary for victory.”3 Through films like Sahara, the OWI created a concept of what it means to be an American or an ally; by carefully structuring a character’s actions, language, and morality, filmmakers proved to be effective and important partners of the administration. The creation of a combat genre that followed the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry’s strict guidelines resulted in films that, while not directly representative of the home front or front lines of World War II, shows the intimate relationship between the OWI and American cultural output.

The opening scene of Sahara lends no doubt that the main character, Sergeant Joe Gunn (played by an ever-gritty Humphrey Bogart), is the epitome of masculine energy and American loyalty. As the radio spits out American lingo and the vast, foreign desert swirls unforgivingly, Gunn leads a group of all-American boys, named Jimmy and “Waco,” on a mission. The use of a recognizable city name as a nickname for a character presents an image of a man with a very strong sense of place– “Waco” is identified by his roots in the United States even before he is identified by his given name. In the scene, the trio attempt to repair “Lulubelle,” or the tank they have been riding in. Gunn seems to have developed a strong attachment to the tank; in several instances, he compares the tank to a woman, saying that “no dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor will sound to us once she gets rolling.” While other characters talk about the women they have back home, Bogart’s character seems to have only the tank, which quickly becomes a symbol of Gunn’s deep devotion to the military.T his gives Gunn a brash, cold quality that makes it difficult for him to distinguish between logical and honorable. One scene allows Bogart to play out his gruff character while also retaining some humanity– while he seriously considers leaving a stranded Italian to die in the sun, British characters who are portrayed as softer persuade him allow the man to join the tank.4 He grudgingly concedes and later offers both the Italian and German prisoners water, illustrating the idea that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” must be established “even in Germany, Italy, and Japan.”5 Ultimately, Gunn is a good guy, although he needs the persuasion of kindhearted foreigners before he makes a caring decision.

These traits in particular make Gunn a poster child for the hero described by the Manual. The Manual claims that the United States was built “upon the devotion of men who have always been, and are today, willing to die for their country.”6 Because Gunn has no family back home, he is easily the bravest of the bunch. Willing to die for his country, his attitude is contagious and creates an atmosphere of honor and loyalty between the Americans, British, French, and Sudanese allies. Bogart’s character serves as a meeting point between each nationality, showcasing the idea that the allies are varying nationalities converging upon a shared vision of a “new world.” The clearly displayed leadership abilities of Gunn allow the film to show that “American commanders have allied troops and naval units under them in certain theatres of war.”7 By showing the willingness of the British commander to release his command to Gunn, the film illustrates not only that Gunn and his tank are strong leaders, but that the Allied forces must trust and defend each other unselfishly. By initially offering the French and British men cigarettes, Gunn creates a relationship of dependency among them troops that culminates with the men sharing stories of loved ones back home and ultimately sacrificing their lives to defend common values. Between his thick accent, name taken straight out of a comic book, and militarized attitude, Joe Gunn represents the type of American soldier the government hoped would inspire both soldiers abroad and workers on the home front to work for the war effort.

While Sahara portrays Americans and their allies as strong, caring, and honorable, the film takes a markedly different approach to portraying the Axis. The German in particular is conniving, rude, uncooperative, racist, and snide. The film makes it a point to illustrate the racism of the Nazis by having the German object to being touched by the Sudanese soldier. This is ironic considering the status of race relations in the United States in 1943; while the film used the Sudanese character to create a Manual-inspired aura of cooperation between the races, the German’s reaction is not too far off from how many Americans would have reacted in the same situation. The German is meant to encompass the absolute worst characteristics of humanity, and in doing so manages to become the antithesis of a patriotic American. Even his dramatic death, being smothered in the sand by an “inferior race” rather than killed by an enemy bullet, brings to mind the idea that he is a man drowning in his own ignorance and cruelty. The German in the film is given a more symbolic role and a less personal role. Caricatures of brutal enemies are the creation of “Hollywood’s war,” which did not always accurately describe the complexity of the enemy. As Thomas Doherty quotes a veteran: “When I see Japs once again portrayed as comic opera characters, thick skulled and insanely egotistical, I am inclined to walk out [of the theater].”8The role of the German definitely fits the OWI’s expectations, but ensures that the entirety of the German people, not just committed Nazis, are faceless and evil.

The role of the Italian prisoner of war in the film starkly contrasts with that of the German. The Italian, who is given the name Giuseppe, plays to Gunn’s humane side when he pleads while showing pictures of his family to be saved from a painful death in the desert. From the initial moment the character is introduced the audience understands that Giuseppe is not evil or malicious like the German; instead, he is a victim of circumstances that needs the paternal care of the more liberated Allied forces. Several instances show his loyalty to Gunn and his men once joining the tank. He explains his circumstances and his fear of Mussolini, refuses to aid the German in betrayal, and serves as an example of a simple mechanic who ended up on the wrong side of the war. Giuseppe’s situation is best described by his final soliloquy, spoken just before the German kills him in rage: “Italians are not like Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, and not the soul…. I’d rather spend my whole life living in this dirty hole than to stand and fight for things I do not believe, against men I do not hate. And for your Hitler, it’s because of men like him that God, my God, created hell!”9 The character is seen as clearly different from the Allies- compared the Frenchman, who also describes the suffering in his homeland, the Italian seems helpless- but he ultimately redeems himself by dying for the Allied cause. The representation of the Allies as being in the moral right and this moral right being recognized (except for by the hopelessly evil German) illustrates a convergence of the Manual, the personal feelings of the studio, and the hope of the American people that this war was worth it. Giuseppe’s emotion-packed monologues give a face to the people overseas that Americans at home are wishing could be free as well. Although there certainly were Italians loyal to Mussolini, Giuseppe’s disloyalty reassures the viewer that even Mussolini’s own people disagree with his moral position.

The film’s dramatic final battle begins when Gunn delivers an impassioned speech to the Allied forces. When confronted with the idea that standing against the Germans akin to throwing life away, Gunn responds by describing previous hopeless stands the Allies had taken: “Maybe they were all nuts. But there’s one thing they did do. They delayed the enemy and kept on delaying him until we got strong enough to hit the enemy harder than he was hitting us. I ain’t no general, but it seems to me that’s one way to win.” By giving this speech, Gunn tells more to the American people than a thousand propaganda films could: Help the war effort. Acknowledge the suffering of your men abroad. Never lose hope when things become dark. Understand that you are on the side of good, and that good must always take a stand against evil. True Americans value honor and morality over even their own lives. Sahara’s dry, desperate setting and diverse cast of characters bring to mind the struggle for good to prevail in a desert of immoral evil. It is no great wonder that with films like Sahara, America’s cultural memory of World War II evokes passion and patriotism more so than any war after it.


1Koppes, Clayton and Gregory Black, “What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945.”, The Journal of American History  4, no. 1 (June 1977): 87.

2 Ibid., 91.

4 Zoltan Korda, Sahara (1943).

5Government Information manual for the motion picture industry.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8Thomas Patrick Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 8.

9 Sahara


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