In 1927, after the tragic death of her automobile industrialist father, daredevil race car driver Dale Gordon (Brooke Shields) is desperate to enter the Sahara World Rally. So desperate she disguises herself as a man, with the aide of a snappy suit and fake moustache that grants her a disturbing resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). Racing against her German arch-rival Von Glessing (Horst Buchholz), Dale runs right into the middle of tribal war waged between Bedouin factions in the Sahara desert. She is captured by Rasoul (John Rhys-Davies), whose nephew Sheikh Jafar (Lambert Wilson) is smitten with the plucky heiress. Dale must face a host of dangers if she is to finish the race.
Not to be confused with the 1943 Humphrey Bogart war movie, the 1995 James Belushi remake, or the 2005 Clive Cussler adaptation (that also stars Lambert Wilson in a major role), this Sahara was one of several misfires that scuppered the once-promising career of lovely Brooke Shields. Although Pretty Baby (1978) got her off to an auspicious, if controversial start and the mawkish The Blue Lagoon (1980) was at least popular, Sahara earned her a Razzie nomination for “worst actress” and a win for “worst supporting actor” billed as “Brooke Shields with a moustache.” Ah, those Razzie wags. I sure loved their last movie…
Schlock merchants Cannon Films were to blame. Scripted by notorious producer Menahem Golan and James R. Silke, writer of the trash “classic” Revenge of the Ninja (1983), this old-fashioned romantic adventure is relatively lavish by Cannon standards. The cinematography, jointly handled by David Gurfinkel and Armando Nannuzzi is quite striking as indeed is Ennio Morricone’s score, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Working behind the camera was veteran Andrew V. McLaglen, the son of old Hollywood character actor Victor McLaglen. He made a string of westerns throughout the Sixties, some ambitious like Shenandoah (1965) or The Way West (1967) but a great many that were run of the mill and by this stage with the genre fallen from favour, specialized in glossily inconsequential adventure yarns. McLaglen directs the action with gusto, but dwells on would-be wacky scenes involving comedy Italians and stiff-upper-lip Brits that do nothing to advance the rickety plot.
Brooke Shields isn’t awful but wavers disappointingly from gutsy to whiny, although this is as much the fault of the screenwriters who deal some nauseating mixed messages. For you see, Sahara isn’t about Dale racing to save her dad’s beleaguered company and prove her worth in a man’s world. Nope, it’s about Jafar taming her into his pliant love toy, or as he puts it “as I rule the sand, I rule you.” It’s irksome how readily this acquiesces to all the misogynistic clichés and quite unlike the more progressively enlightened The Wind and the Lion (1974), excuses murder, torture and rampant sexism because the heroes are so darn romantic. John Mills co-stars as Cambridge, a most curious Englishman who claims he has happily submitted to being Jafar’s slave and nonsensically suggests Dale do the same. Even though Dale utilizes a handy box of dynamite to see off the Bedouin's enemies, her reward is far from liberation. What follows is a faintly skin-crawling scene where tribal warriors watch and cheer as a meek, subservient Dale is led to Sheikh Jafar's bed.
The script feebly implies the love of a good woman is what Jafar needs to make him a better leader, but this is faux feminist blather of the worst kind. If there is such a transformation, it comes entirely at Dale’s expense. Why else does go from punching bad guys in the first half to a screeching damsel in distress in the latter stages. By the finale (spoiler warning!), Dale turns her back on the trophy, her inheritance and dad’s company and rides into the desert with Jafar. Some people find that romantic. Presumably this supposedly gutsy, outspoken millionaire race car driver and entrepreneur will stop worrying her pretty little head about men's business, keep her face covered and mouth shut, and start popping out babies. If that sounds romantic, then more power to you.