After the Battle of Gazala, Gunn and his remaining crew are separated from their unit during the retreat. Heading south across the desert to rejoin their command, they encounter a bombed-out field hospital, where they pick up Captain Halliday and his own motley band of four Commonwealth soldiers and a Free French corporal. Shortly after that they add the Sudanese Sgt Mjr Tambul and his Italian prisoner Giuseppe, and finally a crashed Luftwaffe pilot named von Schletow.
Desperate for water, they arrive at the well at Bir Acroma, but discover a German battalion, equally desperate, is right behind them, leaving Gunn and his men to either convince the Germans to lay down arms and be on their way in exchange for the water, or defend the well until reinforcements arrive.
Generally regarded, along with films like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Casablanca or In Which We Serve, to be one of the relatively few wartime movies that holds up today outside of its propaganda value. It was a loose adaptation of a 1936 Russian film The Thirteen, itself an adaptation of John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and was remade in 1995 with James Belushi in Bogart's role.
Tropes used in Sahara:
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: There were indeed American advisors — with M3 Lees — present in North Africa before Operation Torch.
- Big Eater: Implied by Frenchie when he talks with great joy about the big feasts he had in his home town with the cheese they made — although it becomes a hard-core Mood Dissonance when he then goes on to explain that the Nazis arrived one day and killed all the cows and many random townspeople in retaliation for some of them (including Frenchie) being Resistance members.
- Bittersweet Ending: Only Gunn and Bates (and Gunn is the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer left) survive The Siege of Bir Acroma, but they manage to capture all of the surviving Nazis of Von Falken's group and hand them over to a rescuing patrol led there by Waco, and after the Downer Beginning of the Battle of Gazala, the news that the Allies defeated the Afrika Korps at the First Battle of El Alamein give them hope.
- Bring News Back: After the firefight with the scouts of Von Falken's group, Gunn chooses Waco to take the scouts' half-track, some water, and go south to deliver news of what they are going to do at Bir Acroma to any Allied patrols he can find.
- I Call It "Vera": Lulubelle, the tank. They also like to treat her like a (very temperamental) lady.
- Chromosome Casting: There are no women in this film, understandably because it takes place across empty desert in the middle of a World War II frontline.
- Cooperation Gambit: Gunn first offers "water for food", so that both parties can then go on their way resupplied. Then he offers "water for guns" to stop the Germans advancing on the retreating allies. Von Falken won't consider either. After his death, his men are so thirsty their attempt at a final charge turns into a stampede for the well and they gladly throw down their guns.
- Desert Warfare: This film happens smack in the middle of the Sahara Campaign of World War II, with all of the mess that this involves. Notably, it is constantly said and shown that both sides are left to whatever mercies the desert will feel like giving them (which aren't many).
- Deus ex Machina: One of the artillery strikes the Nazis fire during the final battle hits the well head-on, releasing water freely. This is the only thing that saves Gunn and Bates (the only Allies still standing by then) from getting killed by the Nazis, that turn their charge to try to get into close quarters into a mad stampede for the fresh water, dropping all of their guns as they go.
- Downer Beginning: The Allies losing the Battle of Gazala, which forces Gunn and his tank crew (and later the survivors of an Allied field hospital) to run away across the Libyan desert and hope to hell that they can find more Allies to regroup with.
- Due to the Dead: Both the original and remake versions of the film end with shots of the graves of the fallen protagonists (the original showing said shots over Gunn's final lines saying their names and "we stopped them (the Nazis) at El Alamein"), the remake only accompanied by the closing soundtrack).
- The Greatest Story Never Told: Gunn's big Line in the Sand speech, convincing the other Allied soldiers to make a stand in Bir Acroma in the hopes that it prevents other Allies further south from being flanked, has him mention that this is a sacrifice that nobody will probably ever know about. Subverted because Waco manages to find reinforcements when he's told to go Bring News Back and thus he, Gunn and Bates survive to tell the tale.
- HeelFace Turn: Giuseppe, an Italian who doesn't like Germans, gives his life warning Joe that von Schletow has escaped. He also offers to help fixing Lulubelle when her engine malfunctions on the road to Bir Acroma (and when the others decline because they think he will try to sabotage the tank, he points out that Lulubelle is the only way he can get out of the desert alive, as well.)
- Hold the Line: The well of Bir Acroma is bone-dry, but the Germans don't know that, so Gunn proposes to pretend that the well still gives water in order to make the Nazis fight them—the more time that they can hold them at bay is more time that prevents this group from flanking any potential Allied action further South.
- In the Back: Von Falken has Frenchie shot in the back after a negotiation. In retaliation, Gunn's men manage to kill him.
- Ironic Echo Cut: The 1995 remake starts with a documentary reel that showcases the construction of the Lee tanks and the narrator talking about how with tanks like these the Allies will definitely defeat the Axis. Cut to the Battle of Gazala and the crew of "Lulubelle" scrambling to scavenge stuff to make the tank run so that can use her to escape from the Nazis' curb-stomping.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Ozzie Bates, as he and Gunn talk about enjoying poetry.
- Last Stand: What the crew of Lulubelle figure the siege will end in. Almost, but not quite.
- Line in the Sand: Because they're so greatly outnumbered and their plan has a low chance of survival, Gunn decides it's only fair that they all choose whether to stay or go. Unsurprisingly, everyone chooses to stay.
- Nazi Nobleman: Both named Germans are vons.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Three American tankers, a British Medical Corps captain, his four Commonwealth troops (including an Anglo-Irish and a South African), a Sudanese Sergeant Major and their Italian and German prisoners, all stuck together at an oasis.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The Battle of Gazala was a curb-stomp in favor of the Nazis, forcing all of the Allied members of the cast to retreat and venture through the desert in the hopes that they will find more Allies to regroup with.
- The Siege: The second half of the movie.
- Tank Goodness: Lulubelle, an M3 Lee and the one thing giving Gunn and his men an edge over the Germans.
- Thirsty Desert: The Sahara Desert is equally treacherous and unforgiving to both Allies and Axis troops. It is the desperation of both sides to find water that draws them to Bir Acroma, and the main reason (aside from murderous stubbornness) why von Falken doesn't just cuts his losses and takes his troops elsewhere.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Led by Major von Falken, who is willing to get his men killed needlessly and shoot someone in the back.
- Weapons Understudies: As is the case with many war films from the period, the German armoured vehicles are played by American ones in drag. Von Schletow's plane is also an early-model Mustang.
- Worthy Opponent: Notably, the film is much more sympathetic to the Italian Giuseppe than the Germans. (Quite possibly because by the November '43 release of the film, Italy had surrendered and switched sides, and the Allied propaganda machine had to immediately start rehabilitating the Italian image for the push on the German puppet state Salò Republic holdouts.)
- You Are in Command Now: Captain Halliday cedes authority to Gunn, as it's Gunn's tank and Halliday is a medical officer with no combat experience.