Back in the late 50s the only way you could see a movie on television was to turn on the CBS network. With the Early Show, the Late Show, and the Late Late Show, you got to see just the kinds of films that are the staple of the Turner Classic Movie cable station today. Today I stumbled across a TCM screening of the 1943 “Sahara”, one my favorite movies from way back when. Written by CP’er John Howard Lawson and starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in Libya during WWII, I always felt like standing up and cheering when the dirty Nazis surrendered to the outnumbered allies, a small band of men assembled from the “united nations” fending off Nazism. There was a Brit, a Frenchie, some Yanks, a North African, and an Italian prisoner who eventually gave up his life to help his captors. Like most CP’ers in Hollywood, Lawson really knew how to spin a tale that would get people rallying around the stars and stripes.
The only problem was figuring out what the hell Humphrey Bogart was doing in North Africa. After reading chapter seventeen of James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of World War Two”, a book that I would nominate for Isaac Deutscher Prize of 2013 if I were on the jury, I will never be able to see “Sahara” in the same light.
Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn (sounds like a Tarantino character?), whose tank crew has been attached to the British army to gain experience in desert fighting. The film opens with the British in general retreat after Rommel’s forces overran Tobruk, a seaside city on Libya’s eastern border to Egypt.
At a bombed out field hospital, Gunn picks up a motley crew of soldiers from other countries including a Sudanese with an Italian prisoner named Giuseppe played by J. Carrol Nash, an Irish actor who had perfected an Italian accent. We used to watch Nash in “Life with Luigi” back in the 1950s, a show that might be described as the Italian version of “The Goldbergs”. Nash’s role in “Sahara” is to personify the inept Italian army that had no heart in fighting. Made in 1943, the film reflected the state of Italian fascist politics. Mussolini was tossed aside that year and a new Italian government took up the fight against the Nazis, but eventually showed more grit in suppressing the local CP partisans who had dealt the deathblow to Mussolini.
Rex Ingram, an African-American who was the first to receive a Phi Beta Kappa Key from Northwestern University, plays the Sudanese soldier. As might be expected, his first acting role was in “Tarzan of the Apes”. Wikipedia comments drily: “He made his (uncredited) screen debut in that film and had many other small roles, usually as a generic black native, such as in the Tarzan films.”
Apparently Ingram’s notions of Black theater clashed with those of the Communist Party, as related in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem During the Depression”:
Shortly after the performance, the company announced plans to stage additional full-length dramas based on a “program of social realism.” The movement toward a black theatre of protest posed difficulties for black artists. “Social realist” drama had numerous cliches and conventions: e.g. the conversion, the crisis and the obligatory concluding strike —that made it difficult to portray human relationships that were not explicitly political. Such difficulties increased in a black setting where writers and their left-wing critics often felt compelled to emphasize the theme of black-white unity and to counteract popular stereotypes of black behavior. When an artist portrayed blacks as criminals, religious enthusiasts, or hedonists, no matter how accurate that might be in a particular setting, s/he risked the displeasure of Communist critics. Such a fate befell Rex Ingram. At a theatrical benefit for the ILD [International Labor Defense], Ingram’s company put on a play called Drums Along the Bayou, which portrayed the radicalization of black workers in Louisiana and their rejection of voodoo for Communism. The final scene, in which the “previously superstitious” workers began “shouting Communist slogans” and the voodoo drums beat a new “supposedly Communist rhythm,” horrified Daily Worker writer Alice Evans:
The treatment, presenting Communism for the Negro as a sort of sublimated voodooism, full of hysteria and drum beats, is very dangerous, in that it confirms the vicious capitalist myth about the Negro as a jungle creature instead of a human being. Thinking of the fine self-control, remarkable discipline, and quiet reasoning power of Negro workers, proved in hundreds of struggles it becomes extremely regrettable that Rex Ingram should have given us so frenzied a picture of Negro conversion to Communism.
The CP’s arrogance toward Rex Ingram should give you an idea of what a mixed blessing their hegemony represented. While far more capable of reaching workers and Black people than their Trotskyist rivals, they took such advantage of their power that they eventually turned their friends into enemies. No better example can be found than Richard Wright.
Despite the ability of Lawson to craft a movie that was made to order for the CP’s wartime needs, it was not so long ago when he was going through the same kind of travails as Ingram. Wikipedia reports:
During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a “A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article “‘Inner Conflict’ and Proletarian Art” he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers’ rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.
In “Sahara”, Bogart’s small group of democracy-loving fighters stand off a much larger Nazi force who have become weakened due to a lack of water. When Bogart offers to exchange guns for water from the oasis he commands, they refuse. Ultimately the elements get the better of them just as it did in the invasion of Soviet Russia and they surrender en masse to the good guys.
But what the fuck were the Brits doing in North Africa to begin with? Let me turn the microphone over to James Heartfield:
In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ship the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.
Britain had assembled an army of 630,000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready. In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer,
Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.
Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.
Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain. In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.
In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg, Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:
the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.