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January 28, 2009

Miracles

I love Turner Classic Movies. My DVR is loaded with movies from TCM, movies I’ve seen but would like to see again, movies I never saw but have wanted to, movies I never heard of but are likely to be fascinating glimpses into a world long gone away.

One of my recent discoveries was “Sahara,” a World War II picture featuring Humphrey Bogart. I have been aware of the title for years, but had never bothered to take the time to watch it. I’m not much a fan of combat films (as opposed to war drama, which is another beast altogether), so it never really begged my attention. When I put it on recently, the host said it was one of Bogart’s all-time favorites, so I figured I’d probably find something worthwhile.

As the action begins, Bogart is in command of the last tank facing oncoming German forces from three sides. He receives orders to retreat … into the desert, the crew’s only avenue of escape. With little water and a battle-damaged vehicle needing constant repair, he and his two-man crew make a Hail Mary pass into nowhere. Along the way, they “rescue” a group of stranded English soldiers and an African soldier with an Italian prisoner.

Pooling their resources, they ultimately find their way to an abandoned fort. The well is dry but for the slightest regular drip coming through the rock. After collecting a few quarts of water, the drip stops. Meanwhile, two scouts from a nearby German battalion find them. Bogart offers his party the opportunity to ditch the fort and try to avoid a confrontation, but they choose to take a stand. So Bogart sends one of the scouts back to his ranks, telling him they have plenty of water and that they’ll trade water for guns. All the while, he knows that he and all of his comrades are doomed unless there’s a miracle.

The battle proceeds as if in slow motion. Soldiers on both sides are taken out by snipers. There’s a tense struggle between the remaining German prisoner and the Italian, who has slowly switched his loyalty to the Allies for not leaving him to die in the desert.

As the Allies’ ammunition and water run out, the few remaining soldiers watch as the Germans start racing toward the fort. Bogart and his friends prepare to meet their ends, but it turns out that the Germans are surrendering! This is cold comfort, as they know as soon as the Germans discover the water is gone, they’re all gonna die. But it turns out a rocket that had hit the well during the final assault has broken through to an abundance of water, and, uh, oh yeah, the American reinforcements are on their way. Whew!

In theater, events like that rocket hitting water would be considered a deus ex machina, an intervention by god, and it’s generally regarded as a pretty cheap device, a manipulation of the audience’s willingness to believe in the action presented. In this case, the “miracle” is at least artistically debatable; it is presented as an utterly improbable circumstance, but at least vaguely possible. Was it based on a true story? Was it a fantasy created by some irony-obsessed screenwriter?

I find the bare fact that humans can conceive and convey thoughts to one another miraculous. We can represent our experiences as truth. We can impose significance upon circumstances. We can even invent narratives in order to generate responses in our fellow humans. We can manipulate the emotions of our audiences, and we can offer encouragement with tales of heroism.

The miracle of “Sahara” is that a human could conceive such a story and organize it in such a way that it might ring true enough that a viewer might start to believe in slim chances, which, oddly, seems terribly appropriate these days.

For further review: Preston Sturges’s “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) tells the story of a young woman who goes to a dance for soldiers the night before they ship out. She comes back with amnesia, but gradually remembers that she got married, and then discovers she is pregnant, but can’t remember her husband’s name or anything else about him. Scandalous.

Also, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) tells the story of Preston Tucker and how his effort to build an innovative car was crushed by the major American automobile companies. Doesn’t generate much sympathy for Detroit, but there’s never been a more inspiring story about failure.