German-born director John Brahm marks time with the standard-issue adventure saga "Bengazi," starring Richard Conte, Victor McLaglen, Mala Powers, Richard Carlson and Richard Erdman. This dialogue-laden, sand-swept search for buried treasure in post World War II Libya is as contrived as its cardboard characters. RKO Radio Studios released "Bengazi" after "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) and it adheres to the greater good formula that "Treasure" established where the good guys lost their hard fought fortune to native elements. Scenarists Louis ("Villa!!") Vittes and Endre ("Twenty Bucks") Bohem have fleshed out one-time writer only Jeff Bailey's yarn and done little to make it either exciting or meaningful. The story is predictable, straightforward, but ultimately downbeat. The dialogue is--on the wholeof nothing worth quoting. Conte gets the best line when he encapsulates his character: "You know, the army grabbed me when I was a kid. Out of the army all that was left was a big wide open space in the middle of the road." The best thing about "Bengazi" is the ironic twist that allows our anti-hero hero to locate the loot.
The physical production, on the contrary, is top-notch. Cinematographer Joseph Biroc, director Robert Aldritch's long-time lenser, makes "Bengazi" look better than it deserves with his widescreen 'Superscope' lens. Biroc's atmospheric black & white cinematography looks outstanding. Jack Okey's art direction deserves as much praise as Alfred E. Spencer's set decorations. The cast is capable, but they play trivial characters with which we have no sympathy. Whatever epic proportions "Bengazi" assumes in this trim 78 minute melodrama is due more to Biroc's black & white lensing than an action-packed plot.
"Bengazi" opens with John Gilmore (Richard Conte of "The Violent Professionals") and Basim (Jay Novello of "The Conspirators") stealing a British Army lorry. Stiff-necked British Criminal Investigation Department Inspector Levering (Richard Carlson of "Flat Top" with a 'wee' Scots accent) organizes a search. He starts with Donovan's Bar owned by hulk-like Robert Emmett Donovan (Victor McLaglen of "The Informer") and Donovan assures Levering that he lives only for peace and quiet. When a brawl erupts during their conversation between other bar patrons, Donovanin the most amusing moment in the moviethunders at them at the top of his lungs to behave. They behave. Levering wants to see Donovan associate Gilmore. Gilmore picks that moment to saunter nonchalantly into the bar. Levering informs Gilmore about the consequences for theft of government vehicles. He inquires into Gilmore's whereabouts for the last couple of hours, and then quizzes him about the scratches on his hand. Gilmore invents a tale about a scrape with a blond, Nora Neilson (Hilary Brooke of "Invaders from Mars") who clawed him. Levering tries to question Ms. Neilson. Gilmore walks into her bedroom and explains to the Inspector that not only is Neilson a Swede but also that she doesn't speak English. Levering departs, and Neilson asks Gilmore where he has been for the last couple of hours.
Selby (Richard Erdman of "Objective, Burma!") enters the story at this point as an unshaven, ex-army soldier on parole after having served two-and-a-half years in prison for nearly killing a Bedouin. The Army gave him a chance to leave the country, but he refused and his refusal has always bothered Levering. Selby is just being released after serving a three month sentence for violating his parole. What's more, Levering worries about Selby's interest in the desert. He assigns a policeman, James Macmillan (Albert Carrier of "Major Dundee"), to watch Selby day and night.
Meanwhile, Gilmore and Selby rendezvous quietly at a barber's chair in an open-air market and then relocate to a sauna where Gilmore doesn't plan to put himself at risk for Selby. Anyway, Selby assures Gilmore that the gold is buried at a mosque in the desert where the Arabs hid it during British General Montgomery's push during World War II. They agree to leave at midnight. The last character to appear in the first half of the movie is Aileen Donovan (Mala Powers of "Rage at Dawn"), Donovan's daughter that he hasn't seen in fifteen years. Levering confronts her at the point of embarkation, scrutinizes her papers and has boys carry her luggage.
Meantime, a suspicious Donovan checks Basim's stable. He discovers the pinched lorry from a pool of motor oil on the floor. Donovan confronts Gilmore about the lorry. Gilmore cuts him in for a third of "tribal gold buried somewhere out in the desert." When they leave for the desert, Gilmore and Donovan learn Selby has murdered Macmillan. "Bengazi" lumbers off to a slow start, but Brahm does an adequate enough job of peeling back the layers of the plot like skin off an onion. Finally, Macmillan's murder heightens the drama as much as Aileen's appearance brightened the action. Now, Levering must pursue them.
About forty minutes later, when our protagonists reach the isolated mosque, the Bedouins pin them down with rifle fire. Not even the machine gun in the lorry can stand off this army of hidden tribesmen. Of course, it doesn't help that Gilmore wastes his limited supply of ammunition on targets he cannot see. Selby becomes the first on-screen casualty, forty-two minutes into the action. Eventually, Levering and Aileen show up in a plane. They land when they see Donovan's signal fire, and the Bedouins destroy their aircraft, trapping them with Gilmore and Donovan at the mosque. Levering takes a slug in the leg. The villains here are largely unseen Bedouin tribesmen. They're crack shots with rifles and know how to conceal themselves. They pick off Donovan about sixty minutes into the story. In other words, the Bedouins constitute a phantom army until they emerge in numbers late in the final quarter hour. Earlier, Carlson antagonized the protagonists before he joined their ranks to survive a massive Bedouin attack. Gilmore redeems himself for his greed at a fadeout with a selfless act of sacrifice.
The protagonists don't win in "Bengazi," they barely survive.