Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sahara vs Sahara

 In April 1995, the made-for-cable-TV remake of Sahara debuted, and I totally intended to skip it. This was an easy, no-brainer decision predicated solely on the fact that James Belushi was cast as Sergeant Joe Gunn, a part that Humphrey Bogart played in the 1943 classic. I thought it was movie sacrilege to cast Belushi in this role. It would be like watching a remake of Casablanca with Rob Schneider cast as Rick. However, due to my tech deficient girlfriend at the time, I wound up with the last hour and thirty minutes of this film on tape instead of an early season Cardinals/Cubs game. I fully intended to tape over the movie without watching, but in setting up the tape position, I started to watch it and just couldn't stop. 

Synopsis: A ragtag group of allied soldiers in the North African desert retreat as overwhelming enemy forces close in.

The original Sahara and the remake are virtually identical story-wise. Even much of the dialogue is the same or at least similar with only a couple of exceptions which include a really clunky and jingoistic sounding speech mercifully cut from the 1995 version. Both films have traditional war story themes of bonding and sacrifice with the characters getting to know each other and overcoming their disparate cultural differences to defeat the common foe.

What initially caught my attention about the Brian Trenchard-Smith remake of Sahara was how well shot and edited it is. The film has a nice look and brisk pace to it that is definitely a cut above most made-for-cable fare especially for its time. Alan Lake, who worked with Trenchard-Smith on Dead End Drive-In, BMX Bandits and Turkey Shoot does another fine job of editing here on the remake and helps the story move right along without ever bogging down in needless exposition or dialogue.

It does seem a little unfair to compare the original which was made over fifty years earlier in black and white, and clearly has physical aging issues, with the updated version which is very new and slick looking. Although the '43 film is on DVD, it was taken from a very mediocre print that appears somewhat dark. The remake was shot mostly during daytime and looks very good. On the older film, the battle scenes are often tough to see due to the murk. But even on a level playing field, I think the remake is a far better technically executed film in most respects.

But what about the acting? There's Bogart, and then there's Not Bogart, aka James Belushi. In the same year Belushi played the former Bogart role, Harrison Ford learned the hard way in the Sabrina remake that he was also Not Bogart. Trying to play a role formerly belonging to an icon is risky at best, career poison at worst. This is where the remake of Sahara should have failed, but Belushi was helped out considerably by a better than average ensemble cast who Trenchard-Smith wisely focused on. Three acting performances standout in the remake - Robert Wisdom as Tambul, Jerome Ehlers as Captain Halliday and especially Michael Massee as the Frenchman Leroux. At one point Massee gives a speech brimming with bitterness that is absolutely mesmerizing. Contrast this with a nearly identical, but almost jovial speech given by Louis Mercier as Leroux in the original and there's just no comparison, Massee's performance is far superior. Robert Wisdom's Tambul is equally fleshed out in the remake as are a lot of the other characters. That's not to say the '95 version is perfect as far as acting. Belushi's not bad, which is about as good as I could of hoped from him. He does tend to chew scenery where Bogart was much more reserved and introspective, but Belushi does keep the ham in him mostly in check. His tank crew-mate characters of Waco and Jimmy, played by Paul Empson and Mark Lee, were also outclassed by the original film's counterparts Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea. But the rest of the original's cast were fairly lackluster and forgettable.

Ordinarily, I don't like remakes, and remakes of classics are anathema to me. But there's no denying the 1995 version of Sahara is a technically  better executed film, particularly in direction, editing and supporting cast, than the 1943 version.

Score: Sahara (1943) 7.5/10    Sahara (1995) 8/10

Availability note: The 1943 version of Sahara is currently available on DVD and the 1995 version is downloadable from Amazon.

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