The Desert Fox (1951)

The Desert Fox (1951)

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"I am James Mason."
“I am James Mason.”

Twitter Plot Summary: A biopic of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Respected military leader, half-hearted Nazi.

Genre: Action/Biography/Drama/History/War

Director: Henry Hathaway

Key Cast: James Mason, Jessica Tandy, Leo G Carroll, Eduard Franz.

Five Point Summary:

1. Rommel 1-0 Commandos

2. North Africa, this should be fu… oh, we’re moving on already?

3. “I am James Mason.”

4. von Stauffenberg looks like a walking corpse. 

5. It’s like a 1944 version of “take the red pill or the blue pill”.

Any film portraying Erwin Rommel, particularly one so close to the end of WW2, is risky business.  It stands to reason that the film was made was following post-war revelations that revealed Rommel to be complicit in the plot to assassinate Hitler. If he wanted to kill the toothbrush-mustachioed nutter, who are we to complain? In fact Rommel was generally regarded as being quite humane with his treatment of prisoners. The opening of the film sees a prisoner (Desmond Young, playing himself) being poorly treated by a German soldier, who is reprimanded by Rommel. This acts as a framing device for the film as Young, post-war, sets out to discover who the true Rommel actually was. Young actually wrote the book “The Desert Fox” on which the film was based, a common theme amongst many war films of the period.

Portrayed by James Mason (who reprised the role in 1953’s The Desert Rats), Rommel is actually shown in quite a positive light. You wouldn’t expect Herman Goering to get similar treatment, but then Goering was a nasty piece of work. By comparison Rommel was a decent chap. The title of the film is Rommel’s nickname, who was in essence the face of the German army in the North African campaign. It was his decision to follow a tactical retreat rather than face excessive losses that earned Rommel the ire of Adolf Hitler.

You're looking a tad ill there, Mr von Stauffenberg.
You’re looking a tad ill there, Mr von Stauffenberg.

The film covers Rommel’s war years, from North Africa to Rommel’s later post in Normandy. Throughout it’s clear that Rommel is loyal to Germany – not necessarily to Hitler and his cause, but to his country. This goes a long way to explain his hesitation in conspiring against Hitler. Rather disappointingly Rommel’s exploits in North Africa are given short shrift, which is strange given that this is where most of his fame lies. Instead we’re pushed swiftly forward to Rommel’s Normandy posting and his defence of the Atlantic Wall.

The 50s and 60s were, unsurprisingly, rife with war films. Many were adequate, some were awful. The Desert Fox benefits from excellent casting, an engaging story and a sympathetic portrayal of “the bad guys”, at least from the perspective of those who were not complicit in gassing people or the decision to annex most of the free world. In this respect at least the film does its job. It’s not an apologist account of what took place during the war, more a case of clearly setting out that not everybody in Germany was a “bad egg”.

There isn’t enough of Rommel’s military expertise on show, in fact there is very little action of any description, the script instead limiting the tale to a more personal affair. We do get a fair overview of Rommel’s tactical abilities from the dialogue, however a couple of scenes detailing his strategies and forward thinking in action, and certainly more about his North African victories, would have created a more rounded film. After the opening sequence where a group of commandos fail to assassinate Rommel, the action stakes are dialed down to almost negligible proportions. It’s also worth emphasising that it took the inevitability of Germany’s defeat to become apparent before the upper ranks of the German forces began plotting against Hitler – not so much heroic as seeing which way the wind is blowing and trying to limit the damage.

Coming so soon after the war’s end, it’s easy to see this as yet another piece of propaganda to throw in Germany’s face. It’s effectively saying “Hey look! This is something else Hitler lied to you about!” More focus on Rommel’s achievements rather than watching him mope about Germany’s war policies would have made for an excellent movie, rather than merely “good.” And let’s face it, nobody wants to see “Emo” Rommel. Now there’s a scary thought.

 

Not Erwin Rommel.
Not Erwin Rommel.

Favourite scene: von Stauffenberg placing the suitcase under the table at Hitler’s briefing, then making a swift exit.

Quote: “It’s too late for me. I’m seventy now – too old to fight, too old to challenge authority, however evil… but not too old, however, to wish you and your friends the best of luck in their extremely interesting enterprise.”

Silly Moment: Giving Rommel the option of whether to take a suicide pill, or go to trial and risk his family’s safety. The way it’s presented in the film is silly.

Score: 3/5

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