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The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway


James Mason, Jessica Tandy, Cedric Hardwicke, Leo G. Carroll, Luther Adler, Eduard Franz, Everett Sloane, William Reynolds, Desmond Young


Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is regarded by many historians as the greatest General of WWII, and by some as the greatest military commander of the 20th Century, earning comparisons to the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert E. Lee. Idolized by his troops and the German people, Rommel was respected by his enemies for his famously strict adherence to the rules of war. Gaining fame in North Africa, where his outnumbered Afrika Korps divisions drove the British before them for two years and nearly drove them off the continent, the ďDesert FoxĒ was held in awe even by those fighting against him, who knew of his chivalry towards enemy POWs. The Afrika Korps did not mistreat prisoners, and no war crimes charges were ever brought against a single member of their ranks or their commander. Recalled back to Germany before the end in Africa, he did not share the fate of his captured men, although he would have been more fortunate if he had. His star never again reaching its former heights after the African campaign, he tried and failed to defend Normandy against the Allied invasion and died a few months later, ostensibly of wounds suffered when his staff car was strafed by Allied planes little over a month after D-Day. Only after the war did both the Allies and the German people learn the more complex and dramatic truth: Hitler had forced his once favorite commander to commit suicide when information regarding his involvement or at least acceptance of the conspiracy to overthrow him reached his ears. While Rommel has been portrayed onscreen in a number of war films, the first and most extensive depiction of who is widely considered Germanyís greatest General of WWII came in 1951, only seven years after his death, in the form of Henry Hathawayís The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel. That such a sympathetic portrayal could be made so soon after the end of WWII is telling of the high regard in which Rommel was held even by his enemies. The result is an intriguing attempt which probably seemed better in 1951 but is still more watchable than many films of the time. It is something of a mixed bag; the special effects are poor, some scenes feel wooden and dated, and too much of the dialogue sounds dry and stilted, and yet a number of scenes and performances remain surprisingly effective.

The story is narrated- occasionally heavy-handedly but generally at least tolerably and sometimes effectively- by Desmond Young, a British officer who had a brief encounter with Rommel during the war and afterwards wrote the same-named biography on which the film is based. After a somewhat tedious pre-credit sequence detailing a failed British attempt to assassinate Rommel, and a second prologue portraying Youngís fleeting glimpse of the Desert Fox, we jump into the decisive Battle of El Alamein, at which Rommel, after a string of lightning victories, was finally defeated and driven into retreat by General Montgomery. Rommel (played by accomplished British actor James Mason of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame) still wants to believe in the FŁhrer at this point, but is shocked and disgusted by suicidal orders ordering him to stand or die; he revealingly chooses to blame these insane orders on Hitlerís fawning subordinates instead of Hitler himself, despite Hitlerís signature. Ill and discouraged, he is recalled to Germany before Hitlerís bungling finally destroys the Afrika Korps. Rommel feels Hitler has betrayed his men but is still making excuses for him, and plunges whole-heartedly into his next major assignment: preparing the Normandy coastline against the inevitable Allied invasion. While few would deny that he is a competent General, he proves less skillful in other matters, particularly when approached by an old friend, Dr. Stroelin (Cedric Hardwicke) who has joined a long-standing plot to assassinate Hitler. This is truly the backbone of The Desert Fox; the internal conflict of a man who has only ever wanted to be a simple soldier, but must reluctantly confront the more complicated reality. Few would deny Erwin Rommelís military ability, but it is his political naivety which will cost him his life.

This is inherently dramatic material, and The Desert Fox is not a bad movie, but I canít help wishing that a modern, big-budget version would come along. With its limited budget and narrow scope, the film gives us the more private side of a famed General, but many complain that it does not show enough of the no-nonsense military man whose ruthlessly efficient command kept the British on their toes for two years of desert warfare and nearly denied the Allies their crucial victory on D-Day. It is also worth noting that the film starts at the beginning of Rommelís disillusionment with Hitler, therefore conveniently avoiding the previous years in which he held an exalted opinion of the FŁhrer, even more so than some of his brother German Generals. James Masonís much praised performance probably seemed better in the 1950s as well, and although he does a fine job, he comes across a bit too mannered and not quite capturing Rommelís hard-boiled toughness, better at playing Erwin Rommel, family man, than General Rommel, tough military commander. Robert Hossein in The Battle of El Alamein gives a stronger portrayal of the "General Rommel" side. At times, Mason runs dangerously close to making Rommel look indecisive and even wishy-washy, which I definitely did not like, as Rommel was one of the most no-nonsense, 110% military men in WWII. The narration repeatedly refers to Rommel as a "cool hard professional soldier", and a "single-minded warrior", but Hossein seems to fit this image much more than Mason, and so did Karl Michael Vogler in Patton. Also, like every other movie I have seen where someone plays Rommel, we first see him during or after the turning point at El Alamein. Just once I'd like to see a film which actually portrays his great victories, instead of just having narrators and the other characters tell us that Rommel is brilliant without actually showing us. But maybe this is missing the point, because Masonís portrayal focuses much less on the military side and more on the personal moral choice his character is forced into. For the reasons stated above, I was not entirely satisfied with Masonís performance as Erwin Rommel, but he is good at projecting a noble and simple man of great personal character and decency who is disturbed to learn that his superiors are not as principled as himself. On occasion his line reading sounds stilted and forced, as in so many 50s films, but in his best scenes he conveys this conflict poignantly. Much of the rest of the cast is not particularly memorable, with a few exceptions. A young Jessica Tandy gives a strong, underplayed performance as Rommelís loyal wife Lucie, and her portrayal holds up perhaps the best in the film, perhaps better than Mason himself. Cedric Hardwicke is also rather good as Dr. Stroelin, who must persuade Rommel to commit to the plot and grows weary of what he sees as Rommel hiding behind the excuse of military loyalty; he hits perhaps his strongest note when he asks why Rommel canít display the same courage politically as he does militarily. Everett Sloane brings a veiled menace to General Burgdorf, relayer of Hitler's final order to Rommel. Leo G. Carroll seems to underplay a little too much as Rommelís superior in Normandy, Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Granted, von Rundstedt was a stiff aristocrat, but Carroll comes across as tediously dour. Luther Adler is borderline cartoonish in his cameo as Hitler and doesnít look much like him, and his German accent- the only real attempt in the movie- sounds a bit overdone, but he does a decent imitation of Hitlerís gestures and vocal patterns. His hysterical ranting at least gives a good counter to Mason's upset but controlled expression as it finally completely dawns on him that Hitler is beyond reasoning with. The battle scenes consist entirely of WWII stock footage. Some of the long dialogue scenes tend to drag, especially when some of the actors read their lines flatly, but the plot moves at a fairly quick pace and there are some genuinely effective sequences- Mason makes a good first impression from a distance wearing Rommelís long leather coat, Hardwicke has a nice scene in which he eludes a Gestapo tail, the assassination attempt on Hitler works pretty well for its brief depiction, and importantly, the final scene still has poignancy. By 1950s standard, the filmmakers stick pretty close to the facts, even though the eighty-eight-minute running time gives a pretty basic skim through of Rommelís distinguished career.

While writing this review I realized that for such a renowned figure, Rommel has not really been given much attention in movies. The Desert Fox isnít bad, but itís old and low-budget, and most of the other portrayals of Rommel, such as Werner Hinz in The Longest Day and Karl Michael Vogler in Patton, have basically been cameos. Robert Hossein is excellent in The Battle of El Alamein, but the film is not widely known, and Hardy Kruger is decent in War and Remembrance, but didn't have enough screen time and is only one not particularly significant part of a huge miniseries. Rommel is entirely deserving of the center of attention in a lengthy, big-budget, Patton-style biopic. I think Ed Harris would be a good choice for the role, and there is certainly more than enough inherently dramatic material to work with. Unfortunately, a major film about a ďNaziĒ General doesnít seem likely. As it is, I like the humanity Mason brings to the role, and appreciate that this is likely to be the most extensive portrayal of Rommel we will see, at least for the time being, but there is still plenty of room for another actor and crew to step up to the plate and give us the definitive depiction of The Desert Fox.