Sea of Sand (1958)
“The Most Amazing Story Ever To Come Out Of The Sahara!”
Director: Guy Green
Cast: Richard Attenborough, John Gregson, Michael Craig
Synopsis: A small British army team is sent to destroy a German petrol dump as part of the preparation for a major attack in the North African campaign.
In Sea of Sand, a typical tale of wartime heroics in the African desert, Richard Attenborough makes what seems like his 352nd appearance as a working class enlisted man, and this piece of unimaginative casting is pretty much in line with the plot of the film, which had been done countless times before – and which would continue to be recycled for a few years to come. Although Attenborough receives top billing, it’s John Gregson and Michael Craig who get the larger – and meatier – roles.
Craig plays Captain Tim Cotton, a tough officer in the Long Range Desert Group in 1942 to whom Captain Bill Williams (Gregson, sporting a rather comical moustache) is posted. Initially, it looks like Sea of Sand is going to revolve around the conflicting personalities of these two, as Cotton is fairly relaxed about procedure while Williams is a bit of a stickler for order. But, the movie is a lot more straightforward than that, and Robert Westerby’s screenplay makes little attempt to find out what makes his characters tick, focusing instead on the mechanics of the unit’s desert mission and its increasingly desperate and hazardous return to base.
Cotton’s unit is tasked with locating and blowing up a Nazi fuel depot deep in enemy territory in preparation for the advance on El Alamein. The mission requires them to drive 400 miles to reach the depot across an arid, inhospitable desert, and it isn’t long before they run into the enemy, resulting in half the unit being wiped out. Against the odds, the surviving members of the unit work together to complete their mission and return home before they are hunted down by the Germans.
The unit is comprised of the usual suspects. Attenborough plays the slightly oily squaddie, not too bright, who carries a canteen of brandy into the desert instead of water. Percy Herbert is his country bumpkin best mate, a father of four who says little, but when he does speak talks in a broad rural accent that is probably unintelligible to anyone outside of the UK. Barry Foster, who would later become TV’s Dutch police detective Van der Valk, makes an impression as a green recruit, desperate to get home to see his one-week-old baby for the first time.
The story, and the fates of the various characters, should make for gripping viewing, but while the film is professionally put together, for the most part it lacks the kind of suspense required to have us sweating over whether the surviving members will make it back to safety. The interplay between the men is actually quite good, with little distinction made between their different social statuses, something which is unusual for a film of this type and era. The film also benefits from location photography, giving the screen a stark, bleached look during the desert scenes and a decent sense of realism, but overall there‘s very little to distinguish Sea of Sand from the host of similarly-themed movies from the same period.
(Reviewed 27th May 2012)