Monday, June 12, 2023

"Lifeboat" and "Sahara"

     I was recently on a camping trip with my kids, and I took my two younger sons, the 11 year old twins, on a hike.  I knew it would be between three and four miles, and I had a good sized bottle of water for us to share, but about half way through I realized the entire endeavor was more strenuous than I anticipated.  I was worried we would run out of water and the boys would become unbearably cranky.  Our lives weren't at risk, but our enjoyment of the hike - through prairie, around a lake, and up a steep, narrow hill to a secluded cave - was in jeopardy.
     So I told the boys we would ration water.  Only take sips at certain mile markers.  It worked.  I managed to keep us hydrated, and happy, for the entirety of the walk.  To help distract them, and also put our "plight" into context.  I told the boys two stories from films I remembered about other thirsty travelers.  "Lifeboat," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, from 1944; and "Sahara," from 1943, starring Humphrey Bogart.  
     "Lifeboat," I explained, was about a group of survivors of a merchant marine ship sunk by a German U-boat (submarine) during World War Two.  The entire film take place on the small lifeboat.  Initially there is only one passenger, a beautiful socialite reporter, but she is soon joined by a laborer from the engine room; a radio operator; a nurse; an African-American steward (waiter and general servant); a wealthy industrialist; a woman holding desperately to her dead baby; and a German survivor of the U-boat, which gets sunk in the battle.  

     My kids were fascinated by the different conflicts that the small location creates.  Who should be in charge?  Is the German - who may or may not have been the captain of the U-boat - helping them, or sabotaging them?  He hides a compass, he sneaks energy pills and water, and he even convinces one of the survivors to jump overboard!  How well do the rich and working class people get along?  When things get tough, and they run out of water, what will they do to survive?  It's a wonderful, tense film, very stressful.  Everything is at stake for the characters.  And I think the ultimate message - that we all need to stand up and fight together (rich and poor, black and white), against fascism (in the form of the German sailor) to survive - is still compelling today.

     "Sahara" has a similar message.  An American tank crew, after surviving a vicious battle, heads deep into the desert as part of a retreat.  The three man crew, led by Humphrey Bogart, is "flying blind."  They only have a rough idea of where to go, and they have limited water, oil, and fuel.  They pick up a rag-tag group of British soldiers, an African Sudanese with a captured Italian soldier, and eventually a German pilot they shoot down after he strafes their tank. (After much debate they decide they can't leave prisoners, either benign like the Italian or possibly dangerous like the Nazi pilot - to die in the desert!)  The Sudanese soldier leads them to an old fort they hope has a well, but that only has a trickle of water flowing, but it's enough to sate their thirsts.  

     As they are about to leave, they capture some German scouts who reveal there are 500 German soldiers nearby, dying of thirst.  The small allied group decides to lure them to the fort with the promise of water, then trap them while they send one of their own men - one of the Americans, in the captured German scout car - for help.  After all, what's their 10 or so lives compared to the 500 German soldiers they might kill or capture?  And isn't the goal to win the war?

     When we got back from the trip, we watched both of the films.  My boys liked "Lifeboat."  They were appalled by the nastiness of the German U-boat captain, and how he manipulates the survivors.  They liked the interesting cinematography - and the way the setting affected and reflected the action (storms rising when things got tense!).  But they liked "Sahara" more.  They enjoyed the way the group of allies made it seem like they had much more water than they did when they were being attacked by the Germans.  And sadly they felt it when, one by one, the small group of men defending the fort were killed by the advancing enemy.  They also liked the race against time element - will the man sent to get help return in time across the harsh desert?  Or will he also die of thirst?

    There are many, many older films that might be appealing to kids.  I think existential crises are good - so are films that express a clear moral stand against evil.  And relating the films to their own experiences helps!