Sea of Sand (1958)

Pomposity and cliché - both narrative and moral - tend to dog war movies, and it’s worth remarking upon when a film in the genre goes for the rigorous, fatalistic tone of classic noir cinema. Sea of Sand comes close. It has some cliché elements, mostly in the casting – Richard Attenborough playing yet another Cockney skiver, for instance – but this film settles for a nearly unique lack of BS. The plot – men of the British Long Range Desert Group stage a long-distance raid on Rommel’s supply dumps in the days before El Alamein.

The characters – a mob of “pirates”, tatty, batty dregs of the Commonwealth’s armed forces, led by grizzled, sour ex-architect Michael Craig, backed up by newly attached officer John Gregson, a professional soldier and family man. The men alternate doing their job with informal stoicism with griping, fantasising, sneaking a drink, and stealing cigarettes. It’s splendidly convincing in detailing their prickly, bored camaraderie, as the men, both blue and white collar, professional and drafted, all treat warfare as just another, particularly shitty, job, which gets them through the day, and yet also blinds them to the final, overwhelming realisation that it can really mean annihilation. Their mission is beset by misfortune, as they battle German patrols and the elements to achieve their objective, and then make an agonising trek back to base, their numbers and vehicles brutally whittled down until a handful of them are left to march through searing desert.

The film’s one hint of romantic interest is Craig’s torn-up photo of his soon-to-be-former wife. Former ace cinematographer Guy Green directs with a no-frills stringency, avoiding melodramatics and jingoism with a passion, and refusing to play by the usual rules of who lives and dies in such a tale - the wrong people keep dying, and the survivors, exhausted and bewildered, are finally confronted by a kind of triumph that's only cheering because it means sooner or later, this monumental nightmare will end. Craig gives a fine, brusquely anti-heroic performance, and a very young Barry Foster makes a mark as a jittery new transfer.

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