Sahara: looking back at a lost action franchise

2005’s Sahara was an epic flop, but it's not, Ti argues, a film without merit. Here's our look back at the action franchise that could have been...

Recently, I wrote an article about how Hollywood was constantly looking for the next Indiana Jones franchise, and that they may have found it in the recently green-lit Uncharted film. However, I also wrote that they had attempted it in the Dirk Pitt franchise, notably with the 2005 flop Sahara, which I had enjoyed.

One comment on the article noted that for liking this film, I was a “moronic malcontent”, so I thought I’d explain why I thought this film was not just underrated, but a decent franchise starter that should have been allowed to continue.

Now, I grew up on action adventure films like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Romancing The Stone and The Mummy, and love high-octane action, exotic locales, and heroes that can take a punch while dishing out witty one-liners.

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At some point in my childhood, I started reading the books of Clive Cussler which, if we’re honest, are throw-away airport trash.However, they are also incredibly entertaining, with Cussler’s hero Dirk Pitt, a former Air Force commander turned marine engineer, along with best friend Al Giordino, finding treasure, uncovering global mysteries, and getting dragged into evil plots often featuring world domination.

The books are quite ridiculous, with some of their foes including billionaire neo-Nazis, evil Aztec cults and a Japanese businessman who seeks to destroy the US with the ‘third’ atomic bomb that was meant to be dropped on Japan during WWII. Like I said, ridiculous stuff.

However, Hollywood saw the potential, and in 1980 financed the movie Raise The Titanic, which saw Pitt attempt to salvage the legendary liner in a bid to recover a top-secret mineral. The film was a colossal flop, received savage reviews, and Cussler vowed that he wouldn’t let his books be adapted again. Until 2005, that is…

Looking for a new action franchise, Paramount came to Cussler with a large bag of money in order to get the rights to the Dirk Pitt property, starting with Sahara. Cussler accepted, on the condition that he got final script approval, and Paramount agreed.

Sahara is arguably the most accessible of Cussler’s books, with the plot revolving around Pitt and Giordino getting caught up in a mysterious plague in Mali, while looking for a US Civil War ironclad in the middle of the desert.

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It is reported that Cussler was “difficult” when it came to approving the various scripts, and disapproved of the more ridiculous elements of his book being removed (Abraham Lincoln’s body is found on the Ironclad in the Sahara, for example).

Paramount refused to wait for him to sign off on the script, and made the film without his approval. Cussler was not happy, and took the studio to court, resulting in one of Hollywood’s biggest lawsuits. Neither party really won, and details of the case, if you are interested found elsewhere on the Internet.

Lawsuits and box office receipts aside, I do enjoy Sahara, and here’s why: it’s fun. In a decade where action films have become progressively darker, and action scenes frantically edited, Sahara is a good, old-fashioned adventure film, where the action scenes are not only well shot, with minimal CGI, but you can actually see what’s going on.

At the time, first-time director Breck Eisner (The Crazies) got a lot of stick for receiving a $150 million budget for his debut film, and a lot of this was attributed to his father being Michael Eisner, former head of Disney.

Of course, the film was meant to be one of Paramount’s tent pole releases, so you could argue that the budget was needed for all the exotic locations, as well as the boat chases, car chases and helicopter chases.

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The only problem is, you don’t exactly see all this money on the big screen. Yes, it’s action packed, but Sahara certainly doesn’t look as lavish as its budget might suggest.

The lawsuit between Cussler and Paramount also revealed a few other interesting details, including the allegation that the film’s budget had doubled due to the vanity of its stars, Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. In legal documents released as part of the bitter court battle, it was revealed that $420,000 was spent on the movie’s leading actors, including $105,000 on bottled water and $54,000 on a “facial disease specialist.”

On that note, let’s talk about the stars. Now, I’d read Cussler’s books growing up, and I’d always picked someone like Hugh Jackman in the role of Dirk Pitt, so I was quite surprised when I read that Matthew McConaughey, also known as “that guy from all the chick flicks who keeps getting his shirt off”, had been cast.

Now, I don’t have anything against McConaughey – I just think he’s one of those actors that hasn’t really challenged himself since the mid-90s, such as in A Time To Kill, and has just coasted on his looks, starring in one drab chick flick after another.

However, he threw himself into the role of Pitt, even taking on a role as executive producer because he had so much faith in the project. Now, whether you like him or not, you can’t dispute that the man is well built, and charming enough to be an action lead.

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In the action scenes, he does a solid job, and throws himself into the fights, something that he hasn’t really done since Reign Of Fire (another underrated film that I liked).

Likewise, Steve Zahn, as his best friend Giordino, does a decent job of  providing the comic relief, and the two sell their relationship perfectly, displaying the bickering and trust that comes from a lifelong friendship, whether they’re arguing about past fishing trips or engaging in gun fights.

It’s a shame about Penelope Cruz, however. She is generally Hollywood’s favourite rent-an-exotic actress, and here she has nothing to do except get rescued, which you could argue is the whole point of a film like this. It really is a boy’s own adventure, with punch-ups, boat chases, and saving the girl the order of the day. A character in the film even utters the line, “I’ll get the bomb, you get the girl”, which gives you an idea of the level of seriousness that the film has.

Now, there will be plenty who hate Sahara, be it because of McConaughy’s inherent smugness, the more ridiculous aspects of the film, or the fact that it was just a box office failure.

However, if you watch it objectively, you can see that there was potential for a new action franchise in here, especially with Clint Mansell’s rousing score underlining the heroic antics. In fact, should David Arnold ever step down from scoring the James Bond films, then I think Clint Mansell should get the gig on the strength of his Sahara score alone.

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Don’t believe me? Then listen to the music that plays in the sequence where a helicopter is shot down by a Civil War cannon – it’s arguably the best scene in the film, and it’s a shame that the film never really hits these heights again.

It’s also a pity that the property’s legal issues make it unlikely that we’ll see a sequel, as Dirk Pitt, in my opinion, was one of best successors to Indy’s title as cinema’s leading action adventurer. He was smart, educated, a smoothie with the ladies, heroic, and delivered a decent right hook to the chins of evil henchmen.

Let’s just hope Uncharted can pick up the torch and run with it…

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