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Retro : Tank Men : SHOWTIME'S REMAKE OF 'SAHARA' PUTS JAMES BELUSHI IN HUMPHREY BOGART'S BOOTS

July 30, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though Humphrey Bogart didn't serve in the Armed Forces during World War II, he contributed to the Allied cause just by starring in a series of classic war films: "Casablanca," "To Have and Have Not," "Action in the North Atlantic" and "Sahara."

Sahara, produced in 1943, is a favorite among film buffs. The superior action film, directed by Zoltan Korda, is about a British-American tank unit stranded in the Sahara desert directly in the path of the Nazi infantry. Bogart gives one of his great gritty performances as tough-as-nails tank commander Sgt. Joe Gunn.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Showtime this week is premiering its remake of "Sahara," starring James Belushi as Sgt. Gunn.

Executive producer Jerry Hayes had been a fan of the original since he was a youngster. "My father had been in the war and he was a big World War II movie buff. He particularly loved the submarine pictures, but 'Sahara' was always something that he really liked. He was a Bogart fan."

Though the new "Sahara" remains faithful to the essence of the original, the film has been updated. "The original was in many ways a piece of propaganda for the mid-40s," says Hayes. "There's a lot of the Allies all coming together and can do no wrong. The Germans and Italians are painted in a very stereotypical way. For the '90s audience, we had to stay away from that propagandistic element and develop some of the characters in more depth and try to contemporize the dialogue in places, so that we didn't feel like we were just doing a remake--something that was still out of date."'

The expansive sand dunes outside of New Castle, Australia, substituted for the real Sahara desert. "We had the ocean on one side and we had the forest of New South Wales on the other," Hayes says. "You might not believe this, but we shot this in 18 days."

"I'll tell you how we did it," Belushi adds. "We shot from 6 in the morning to 6 at night. From 7:30 to 9:30 at night, all the men came to my room and we would go over the next day's scenes in a kind of rehearsal workshop session where everybody helped each other become better actors, made each scene better, made the movie better. We did that for six days a week for three weeks. We didn't get tired, we got stronger."

Hayes agrees. "I turned it into one of those experiences where, as difficult as the picture was to make, everything went the way it should. Jim was fabulous with the cast. There was a camaraderie that developed on this picture that I have never experienced before. It really was unique and a lot of it had to do with Jim being the way he was."

Belushi fell in love with the project as soon as he read the original script. "It was 150 pages. It was just a beautiful piece. I called my agents afterward and said, 'We got to do this.' Then I got the movie and watched it and was just totally moved by the movie. Four days later I was on the plane and two days later I was on the set."

He never worried about stepping into the legendary Bogey's shoes. "I come from theater, so in the theater you are doing plays that Jason Robards has done, that Laurence Olivier has done. Shakespeare has been done for centuries. You make it your own."

"Sahara" premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. Showtime.

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