Note this should not be confused with the 2005 film of the same name starring Matthew McConaughey, or the 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart, or the 1995 remake of the same, or either of two Bollywood films.
Whew! That’s a lot of films named after the desert. But we are presently concerned with the one that stars Brooke Shields as a young heiress named Dale Gordon whose dying father asks her to race his custom sports car in the 1927 Trans-African Auto Race, composed of racers representing all the major European stereotypes–snooty French, goofy Brits, and of course, evil Germans.
But Dale has another problem: the stuffy upper-class twits who run the race won’t allow a woman to participate. So she disguises herself as a man right up to the starting gun. Not until she is safely off on the race does she remove her disguise.
Unfortunately, the desert which Dale has to cross is also the battlefield in a war between two Bedouin tribes. She and her two crewmen are kidnapped by a member of one tribe as she tries to take a shortcut, and dragged to his tent. She escapes from his clutches and wanders out into the desert, but is shortly recaptured.
One of the tribe leaders intends to force himself upon her, but he is stopped by his nephew, Sheikh Jafar, who is the leader of the tribe, I guess. It’s sort of unclear whether he or his uncle is really in charge. I guess Jafar is technically the boss, but he’s a young guy, and obviously he defers to his uncle’s wisdom and experience.
Uh, except… all his uncle wants to do is assault their new captive. Jafar is not okay with that, and so outmaneuvers his uncle by marrying Dale. However, she doesn’t want to marry him, and soon they are interrupted when an enemy tribe attacks the camp, using an armored car provided to them by the German racer.
Dale has sticks of dynamite in her car for some reason, and runs out in the middle of a machine-gun battle to place the sticks in the path of the enemy vehicle. This is miraculous enough, but she then runs back behind friendly lines, picks up a rifle and shoots the sand-colored sticks of dynamite, causing them to explode just as the car drives past!
If a script wants us to believe something like that, they need to establish that a character is an expert sharpshooter first. Even then, it’s a bit hard to believe. But I find it impossible to accept that someone could pick up a rifle they’d never fired before and make those kinds of shots.
Anyway, after fending off the attack, Dale has won the respect of the tribe, and she marries Jafar after all. Then, after a night of passion, she remembers that she came here to fulfill her dying father’s wish and win the stupid race, so she sneaks off to her car and drives off into the desert, accompanied by Cambridge, an Englishman and former member of the faculty at the university of the same name, who is now living among the Bedouin for some reason.
Things seem to be looking up, but then unfortunately Dale is once again kidnapped, this time by the chief of the other tribe.
Seriously? This is the third time in this movie that she gets kidnapped. This is lazy scriptwriting if ever I saw it.
Naturally, Jafar leads a party of war to raid the enemy village and get her back. After initially refusing, his uncle agrees to take his faction of the tribe along. Dale meanwhile fights back against her captors–she’s getting to be an old pro at fighting kidnappers–and so, as Jafar’s men attack them, the tribe decides to dispose of her, and obviously the most efficient way of doing that is to FEED HER TO THE LEOPARDS.
Yes, they have an execution pit, dug inside of a cave, with leopards in it. And there’s even a central sacrificial pillar and everything. Clearly, these desert nomads have not been wandering far if they have time to make an investment like this.
But Jafar arrives and rescues Dale from the leopard pit. His uncle perishes in the fighting, and I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for him?
So, Dale gets back into her car and rejoins the race. As fortune would have it, her shortcut was so much faster that even with all the delays, she’s back on track at the same time as the other drivers are closing in on the homestretch.
Naturally, it comes down to her vs. the evil German racer in a final dash for the finish line. It’s neck-and-neck when the German’s wheel pops off, and Dale pulls ahead.
Having fulfilled her father’s dying wish, Dale goes back to Jafar and rides off to live as his wife, thus ensuring that her entire plot arc is defined by men, lest anyone get concerned that she might be independent or something.
All right; I’m sorry. That’s awfully snarky, isn’t it? Look, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these plot elements–either the fulfilling her father’s dream, or the romance. It’s just… Dale doesn’t seem like a character. She seems like a plot device. Everything she does is reactive. It’s a little thing, but it would have been much more satisfying if Jafar had come to be with her at the end, rather than her going back to him.
Part of the issue, admittedly, is the acting. Brooke Shields “won” two Razzie awards for worst actress for this movie. Frankly, I think that’s a bit harsh. She’s actually decent in the first few scenes; it’s only once she gets to the desert that her performance starts to fall flat.
Brooke Shields is a good actress, and for the most part, the other performances are equally weak. (The exception is Sir John Mills as Cambridge.) So to me, that suggests this is on the director, Andrew McLaglen, more than the cast. Originally, Guy Hamilton, the director of several Bond flicks including Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, had been hired to direct. I suspect he would have been better. Hamilton’s sometimes campy humor, while in my opinion too over-the-top in the world of 007, would have been perfect for this movie.
Sahara sometimes seems almost like it’s going to be a comic adventure, but it never quite gets there. It’s missing something–that wink to the audience that great adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the 1999 edition of The Mummy have.
So, how did I hear about this movie, and why am I talking about it?
I saw the poster on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and had to check it out. And while it was in many respects not nearly as good as it could have been, it did have some gorgeous desert scenes. I just cannot get enough of these barren landscapes. Brooke Shields is no Peter O’Toole, and Andrew McLaglen was definitely no David Lean, but even so there are are some shots in this movie that evoked the sweeping sandy expanse of Lawrence of Arabia. (There was one shot in particular that I’m pretty sure was a deliberate homage to that great desert epic.) And the music is by Ennio Morricone, so you know it’s good.
I’m normally against re-making films. (See my review of Tank Girl.) But this is a rare film that could use a remake. As John Huston–who would have been another good choice to direct this script–once said, the films that should really be remade are not the hits, but the ones that fail. There’s a lot of potential in this movie, but so much of it was wasted.
Of course, a remake should probably have a different title, since as we have seen, “Sahara” is overused. It needs to be something pulpy–how about Dale Gordon and the Great Trans-African Auto Race? Then get Rian Johnson to direct and Gal Gadot to star. You’re welcome, Hollywood. This one’s free, but any more ideas will cost you.