‘Sea of Sand’ is a term used by a member of the Long Range Desert Group of the British Army in this story about a mission in 1942 in the period leading up to the Battle of El Alamein. The LRDG was an ad hoc unit with members drawn from different regiments. Their task was to penetrate deep behind enemy lines covering hundreds of miles across the desert in Libya, rarely using roads as these were busy with German military traffic. Fortunately, the British Army had some desert experts, often archaeologists and classicists or others whose skills could be adapted for driving and navigating the sea of sand. The groups were small often two or three adapted Chevy trucks with a machine gun mounted in the rear each and with three men. Their aim was primarily to gain intelligence but they were also used to make small-scale raids on specific targets.

The Afrika Korps do at least speak German in this film.

In this narrative, an LRDG group is tasked with blowing up petrol stores set up by the Germans along the Libyan coast. The ‘disruption’ which starts the narrative is the arrival of two ‘Sappers’ – Royal Engineers – a Captain and his Corporal assistant whose task is to sweep for mines around the dumps finding a way in for the bombers to leave explosive charges with timers. Captain Williams (John Gregson) and Corporal Matheson (Barry Foster) are, not surprisingly, initially treated with some suspicion by the seasoned squad led by Captain Cotton (Michael Craig). Williams is a regular soldier and something of a ‘spit and polish’ officer who does things by the book, whereas Cotton is most definitely not, realising that in small groups in the desert too much regulation can damage morale. This doesn’t mean Cotton isn’t a good officer. As we see during the narrative, he can take tough decisions and discipline the men if necessary. When the bombers plant their bombs, they discover that the base contains many new German tanks. It’s important that they get this intelligence back to the Chiefs of Staff in Cairo. Unfortunately, this won’t prove an easy task.

John Gregson and Barry Foster as the Sappers, Captain Williams and Cpl Matheson

The North African campaign produced some of the best British pictures of the Second World War, produced both during the wartime period and in the 1950s through to the 1960s. This particular film was directed by Guy Green. Green was originally a cinematographer, best known for his work on David Lean films including Great Expectations (UK 1946). He’d actually started with The Way Ahead (1944) a quasi-documentary drama about a group of British soldiers during the Second World War directed by Carol Reed and which included North African scenes. His directorial career began with River Beat (UK 1954) and went on to include several ‘prestige pictures’ towards the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s. There isn’t anything distinctive about his direction here, but it ‘does the job’ very effectively. He’s helped by the camerawork of Wilkie Cooper who had begun work on Ealing’s wartime pictures and had photographed many of the significant British films of the late 1940s and the 1950s. He makes the most of the location shooting in Libya. However, the greatest strength of the film is the ensemble acting of a range of familiar faces. John Gregson and Michael Craig are well matched and both were leading men in 1950s British films. Gregson is playing slightly against type – he is usually rather more jolly as well as ‘decent’ – Craig in a wild beard is equally a little bit out of his comfort zone. They are supported by Richard Attenborough. Although he gets top billing, his character is an army type, always moaning and sometimes smuggling a bottle of booze into his kit. More dependable is Percy Herbert, seemingly ever-present in British war pictures in the 1950s. This was one of Barry Foster’s first significant roles.

Brody (Richard Attenborough) is reprimanded by Captain Cotton (Michael Craig) for bringing brandy on a raid. Sgt. Parker (Andrew Faulds) looks on. The men have used cocoa powder to darken their faces. The film was presumably shot ‘day for night’ for parts of the raid.

Anyone who has seen the recent BBC serial SAS Rogue Heroes, a souped up version of similar raids across the North African desert, will have noted the appearance of the LRDG which provided the nascent SAS company with its transport and navigational services. This film is a lot less ‘gung-ho’ and presents its heroism within the context of professionalism, although I do think some of the self sacrifices here are slightly exaggerated. Having said that there were real acts of bravery in 1942 that matched those here. These are also men who are at times frightened by what they are attempting to do and who have wives and families at home. British war films of the 1950s have tended to be dismissed by some critics and scholars with throwaway remarks about ‘stiff upper lips’.  But in two of the best works on the subject, Christine Geraghty and Robert Murphy make interesting observations about the changes from the wartime productions. Geraghty (2000) points out that whereas the wartime films strive to present the coming together of diverse groups to attempt to not lose the war (i.e. we are all in it together on the home front as well as on the battlefield), the 1950s films shift more towards smaller groups on specific missions engaged in attempts to win the war. She references a paper by Neil Rattigan in Re-Viewing British Cinema 1900-1992 (SUNY: New York, 1994). Rattigan looks at issues of social class and the ways in which groups within British society are visually coded and their values represented such that they can be classified yet also shown to be working together for the common cause in wartime. The suggestion is that in some analyses of 1950s war films there is a shift in focus towards the more middle-class characters and their leadership as ‘officers and boffins’. As Rattigan and Geraghty argue this is perhaps a more nuanced shift that needs more investigation. In his book on films about the war, Robert Murphy (2000) brackets Sea of Sand with Ice Cold in Alex (1958) as films that allow much more complex characterisations of both the officers and the ‘men’ in a small group (women as nurses in the latter film). Murphy praises the script by Robert Westerby from Sean Fielding’s story. On a different tack, Geraghty makes a useful observation about these wartime missions, quoting Raymond Durgnat’s suggestion that they become in the 1950s the British action genre akin to the popularity of the Western in both the US and in Europe. Geraghty argues that the British missions often pit the group against the natural world which becomes another significant enemy whether it is the Atlantic or Arctic seas for crews on convoys or the desert for the Eighth Army or indeed night flying for Bomber Command.She also makes the point that often the group is constricted and restricted by their ship, aircraft or tank/truck. Unlike the the ‘freedom’ of the Western, these groups face the horrors of being sunk or burned in their confined spaces. I like to her comment that in American versions of these stories there often seems to be more space – she quotes the interiors of US bombers compared to the space in a Lancaster or Wellington.

The three man crew of one of the Chevy trucks – a ‘ship of the desert’?

The film was released in the US through Universal as Desert Patrol in a truncated version. IMDb suggests it was cut from 97 mins to 78 mins. There is also some confusion over aspect ratios. IMDb lists 1.37:1 but some of the streaming versions look wider to me, perhaps 1.66:1. Music is by Clifton Parker and there is a diegetic use of a Vera Lynn radio broadcast of ‘What a Day We Will Have’.

One word of caution: many of the vehicles and the armaments are not ‘authentic’ for the period, but I don’t think this spoils an appreciation of the film.


Geraghty, Christine (2000) British Cinema in the Fifties, Routledge: London

Murphy, Robert (2000) British Cinema and the Second World War, Continuum: London and New York

I watched Sea of Sand on the new itvX streaming service and the inclusion of films like this means that there may be another source of 1950s British pictures to access along with Talking Pictures TV and occasionally Film 4 and BBC channels. Sea of Sand is presumably one of the Carlton library titles now owned by ITV Studios. Here is how Talking Pictures TV trailed the film when they screened it: