Shaping the Atmosphere at Home

During the 1940s, the film industry played a vital role in the portrayal of World War II. For those who were not on the battlefield, the cinema provided essential information about the overseas war zone. Films helped provide answers to these burning questions: Why was America fighting? What was it like? Who was doing the fighting? Answers to these questions are vital and, depending how they are portrayed, can either rally support or dissent of the war. One of the most typical movies of the World War II era that proficiently answered these questions while gaining civilian support for the war was Sahara.

Set in the Saharan Desert, three American soldiers lead by Sergeant Joe Gunn battle dire thirst and Nazis[1]. Sergeant Joe Gunn is easily the main character of the film; therefore, he is very important. The name Joe indicates the idea of “average Joe.” Sergeant Joe could easily be a viewer’s brother, uncle, or neighbor. The last name Gunn indicates that he is strong and powerful. Tons of propaganda is delivered via simply the name of the main character. Through Sergeant Joe Gunn, the film conveys familiarity as well as safety; you know Joe Gunn and he’s going to protect you.

During wartime, it is important to rally support for the troops. One way to do this is to name a main character Joe Gunn. Another way is to blatantly depict the soldiers as good men. The sergeant is a good leader; he is fair, determined, and strong. The other soldiers are also depicted as such. Furthermore, when they encounter French and Sudanese soldiers, they exhibit compassion and camaraderie to these allies when they elect to take the men with them rather than leaving them to perish in the desert.

Further propaganda is displayed when the American troops team up with a few members of a British Army regiment. The British are barely discernible from the Americans; they display the same courage, intelligence, and determination. During a war, it is always important to portray allies in a positive light. Positive portrayal of the British Army helps guarantee American approval of our alliance with Britain. Also, it would be very detrimental to the alliance if Britain were to see us project them negatively.

            Along with the positive representation of allies comes the crucial negative representation of our enemies. In Sahara, the enemies are German Nazis. The troops shoot down a German plane and take its pilot prisoner. The German is depicted as arrogant and obviously foreign in that he claims not to speak English. He is also depicted as sneaky and untrustworthy because, when searched, he has several hidden weapons on his person. It is further proven that he is untrustworthy and dangerous because he actually speaks and understands English and tries to thwart his captors’ plan for combat against the Nazis.

In the necessary representation of the soldiers as strong and determined, yet vulnerable, the Saharan Desert proves to be an excellent plot device. Of course, water is hard to come by and the troops are no exception to this severe lack of water. However, they use their wit and drive to find water. They find a well, but it is dry. However, they persevere and eventually locate another well, although it is barely producing water. Clearly, although the Americans and their allies are strong soldiers, they still are in need of help and support from the homefront.

The Americans and their allies are not the only soldiers in the desert who are battling dehydration. There is also a much larger group of Nazis in desperate need of water. The quick witted Sergeant Gunn and his men formulate a plan to lure the Nazis to their well in a ploy to defeat them and gain control of the area. Their plan is successful and the Nazis descend on the well like wild animals, which furthers the negative representation of the Germans. During this “battle” the Nazis are clear losers although the Americans and their allies suffer a few casualties. This provides a semi-accurate representation of war while also placating Americans at home. Of course Americans will die in war, but they will always die heroic deaths during battle and their enemies will always undergo greater casualties.

By watching films like Sahara today, we understand America’s great need to understand the events occurring overseas in the war. It makes perfect sense that Americans would want a sense of the faraway land in which their loved ones were fighting, the nature of the fight, and who we were fighting against. Although the film industry was (and still is) a great supplier of propaganda (and we typically view propaganda as inherently bad) it helped keep the homeland peace during World War II through films such as Sahara. Without war films like Sahara, Americans would have had little to no understanding of their allies (friendly British, French, and Sudanese soldiers who are very similar to us) and enemies (arrogant and dangerous Nazis). Without the propaganda provided by these films, Americans also would have been less supportive of the war. Certain messages such as those of soldiers being strong and determined, yet vulnerable, lead people to support and admire them while at the same time, wanting to help them in any way possible. It is safe to say that without the film industry, the atmosphere in America during World War II would have been vastly different.

[1] “Sahara (1943),” IMDb, accessed October 27, 2013,


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