Monday, January 29, 2007

A Worthy Supporting Role

The Oscars are upon us yet again. This Hollywood ritual is noted as much for its mistakes as it is for its successes in honoring the best films. Debatable decisions by the members of the Academy are pretty much par for the course. "Rocky" for Best Picture? Really...

One of my favorite categories is the "Supporting Actor" (or actress). These actors' roles and performances often pump a lot of life into their respective films -- just think of Walter Houston's famous turn in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

But a small supporting role that I've always admired is in one of my favorite films, "Sahara." No, not that train wreck of a film made in 2005, but the really first-rate Humphrey Bogart World War II movie made in 1943.

No doubt about it, this film is a piece of propaganda. But it's good propaganda, and supports a just cause. In the film we follow an American tank crew, cut off from their unit, and forced to flee across the trackless desert to safety. Along the way the American crew picks up a veritable U.N. of supporting characters: an Irish doctor, British and Commonwealth soldiers, a Free French fighter, a sympathetic Italian prisoner, a bad Nazi pilot (deliciously played by Kurt Kruger), and most surprisingly, a black soldier.

Conveniently, this black man isn't an American soldier (too many issues there!) but is a "colonial Sudanese" -- Sergeant Major Tambul. Tambul is portrayed by the veteran character actor Rex Ingram, who invests him with a quiet dignity and professionalism that is totally at odds with the "Amos and Andy" stereotypes so popular in those days. Sergeant Major Tambul is skilled, professional, loyal, and brave. And in the end he sacrifices himself to save our band of heroes.

It's a well-written role, and well-played by Ingram. No doubt he found it a highly satisfying role, after many years of playing stereotypical African natives and the like. Ingram's character is treated as an equal by the fellow soldiers of his lost detachment.

Like I said, it's a piece of propaganda. But with a good message, and in the case of Rex Ingram's role, a message with a positive model, portrayed with dignity.

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