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The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)


Of all the heroic figures to have been created by World War II, and to be immortalised by a Hollywood biopic, Erwin Rommel has to be one of the most unlikely.

Rommel was a German General who fought the Allies in Europe and North Africa and loyally served Hitler, at least until it became clear that Germany was losing the war. But his reputation in the North African campaign, where he was untainted by allegations of serious war crimes, and his alleged involvement in the July Plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, helped to turn him into an acceptable figure of non-Nazi German soldiery in the years after World War II.

Like the American General George Patton and Britain's Bernard Montgomery, Rommel's antagonist in the desert, Rommel was also an adept self-promoter, something that helped to make him the best known German General of the war. His skill as a military commander was demonstrated in North Africa, where he fought against the British. He earned the enduring respect of his opponents during the campaign, and the British press gave him the nickname “The Desert Fox”.

James Mason as Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox
James Mason as Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox

The 1951 biopic The Desert Fox, also known as Rommel, Desert Fox or The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, was written and produced by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Henry Hathaway, in a restrained docu-drama style. The film stars James Mason as Rommel, presented here as a loyal and essentially decent man who challenged Hitler when necessary, and eventually stood against him when he came to believe that he was leading Germany to disaster.

The film's screenplay was loosely based on a biography, Rommel, written by a British officer, Desmond Young. Young was serving in the British Indian Army in North Africa when, as a prisoner of war, he had a brief encounter with Rommel. The film dramatises this scene, with Desmond Young playing himself, where Rommel shows his decency by his scrupulous observation of the rules of war. The film is also intermittently narrated by an uncredited Michael Rennie, as the voice of Desmond Young.

The Desert Fox is a bit of a plodding biopic that doesn't really tell the audience much about Rommel or his life. It begins in 1942 and ends his story in 1944, concentrating on a very brief, but admittedly dramatic, portion of his life. It's possible to make a biopic like this, one that focuses on only a small part of a person's life or their career. A prime example is a later WWII biopic, Patton (1970), which tells us little about US General George Patton or his life before WWII, but still manages to give us a flavour of his character and his wartime experiences.

The Desert Fox doesn't really do that. We meet Rommel's wife (Jessica Tandy) and son (William Reynolds), but don't learn anything much about them or about his family life or background. Nor do we learn anything about his service in WWI, where he won the Iron Cross, or in WWII prior to his role in the desert war. Even then, the theatre that brought him the most fame is skimped on, with little explanation of why he was so successful. But by focusing on Rommel's run-ins with and supposed opposition to Hitler, the film avoids the whole fighting for Hitler against the Allies business that might have made him unsympathetic.


Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll) with Rommel (James Mason)
Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll) with Mason as Rommel

The film shows Rommel arriving in North Africa and we're told he's a great General and that the British are worried about him. We even have a commando raid, in which the British try to assassinate him, to prove it. But the film doesn't show or explain why he was a good General or what made him successful, beyond having him stand over a map and point at it a bit. Then, suddenly, the tide turns in the desert, the British are winning and Rommel is losing, so he doesn't seem to be such a great General any more.

This is when Rommel becomes disillusioned with Hitler, as his Afrika Korps is ordered to suicidally fight to the last man. When he goes back to Germany, he meets some other characters who are similarly disenchanted with the Fuhrer. The most important is the Mayor of Stuttgart, Dr Karl Strolin (Cedric Hardwicke). The two men discuss the possibility of Germany losing the war and Strolin raises the Hitler problem. The Allies will not negotiate with him and so the only answer to save Germany is to replace him. Rommel is at first incredulous, but over time he seems to come around to the idea.

Rommel is then sent to France and given responsibility for the Atlantic Wall, the defences the Germans are constructing in the event of an Allied invasion of Western Europe. While stationed in France, Rommel meets Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll). Von Rundstedt is wonderfully dismissive of Hitler, describing him as the “Bohemian Corporal” and referring to the “astrological inspirations” for his military strategies. Although this portrayal of von Rundstedt's views about Hitler's military tactics is likely to be accurate, he probably didn't acquiesce in the July Plot as the film later suggests.

Rommel's involvement in the July Plot takes up most of the latter part of the film. Which is a bit of a problem because it's not clear how much, if any, involvement he actually had in it. The film is, perhaps wisely, circumspect about this, and mostly implies his involvement instead of showing it. That's also probably why there is little detail given about the plot, although we are shown the attempt to kill Hitler in the Wolf's Lair, where Claus von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) plants a briefcase bomb under the conference table before promptly leaving, suddenly remembering that he has to be somewhere else (anywhere else!).


Rommel (James Mason) listens while Hitler (Luther Adler) explains how the new V weapons will win the war
Rommel listens while Hitler (Luther Adler) explains how the new V weapons will win the war

The best part of the film by far is James Mason's performance as Rommel. Mason brings great dignity and gravitas to his characterisation, and it's easy to imagine the film not working at all with a lesser actor in the role. Mason had been a big British star in the 1940s, coming to fame as brooding anti-heroes in the Gainsborough melodramas, The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). He wasn't instantly successful when he went to Hollywood at the end of the decade, and soon found he was often typecast as villains. He went on to alternate working in the US and working in Britain from the 1950s onwards.

Mason had been a conscientious objector during WWII, and so wisely refrained from making war films. The exceptions were when he was playing Germans, as in The Desert Fox, The Desert Rats (1953), The Blue Max (1966) and Cross of Iron (1977). Somewhat ironically, several of the supporting cast playing Germans in The Desert Fox are also British, as would become Hollywood's habit. As well as Mason, there is also Leo G. Carroll, Jessica Tandy and Cedric Hardwicke. Also notable among the supporting cast is the American actor Luther Adler as a petulant Hitler.

The Desert Fox fills in between its dialogue scenes with rather too much recycled WWII battle footage. The Battle of El Alamein is represented by British documentary film, apparently re-used from Desert Victory (1943), and the D-Day landings are portrayed by a mixture of WWII stock footage, some of which appears to be from operations in the Pacific rather than from Normandy. The scoring here, by Daniele Amfitheatrof, is head-bangingly unsubtle, with film of planes being accompanied by the US Air Force song (“Into the Wild Blue Yonder”), ships by “Anchors Aweigh” and landing craft by the “Marines' Hymn”, although someone should have told the composer that it was infantry who landed on the Normandy beaches, not US Marines.

There is also quite a bit of obvious fakery, as when Rommel inspects the Atlantic Wall by standing in front of a painted backdrop of a gun turret, intercut with footage of the real thing. Or when Rommel is shown atop a vehicle, with his tanks seen trundling across the desert all around him, and it's quite obvious that James Mason is sitting on a mocked-up vehicle in front of back projected tanks.

It's easy to forgive the use of an American plane, a Lockheed, to play a German one early in the film, because there were few real German aircraft from WWII available to film makers in 1951. What's less forgiveable is that the tanks in the stock footage representing Rommel's army are not German ones, but Allied Sherman tanks, making it look as if Rommel has got lost and driven into a British convoy by mistake.


James Mason as Rommel, standing by car
Rommel, about to embark on one last journey

Another sloppy sequence is when Rommel's staff car is attacked by British planes in France. To begin with we see only one plane, an American navy Avenger with US markings. The scene then cuts to three planes that look plausibly like British Spitfires. I did, however, appreciate the narrator pointing out that the attack took place near a village called Montgomery, presumably a bad omen.

One odd element is the script's tendency to play up the role of Dwight Eisenhower. The narrator states that the Afrika Korps were defeated by “the British, the Free French and the Americans, led by Eisenhower”. Leo G. Carroll as von Rundstedt refers to the prospective Allied invasion of France as “the mighty Eisenhower”, as if he's going to invade all on his own, and later on Rommel questions if the Germans should “make peace with Eisenhower” (not with Churchill or Roosevelt but with an American General). Eisenhower would run for the US Presidency in 1952, a year after The Desert Fox was released, which makes me wonder if Nunnally Johnson, or someone high up at Twentieth Century Fox, had knowledge of this and were trying to aid his political ambitions. Why else is Eisenhower name-checked so much and talked about as if he is fighting the war single-handed?

One of the film's more interesting scenes is a James Bond style pre-title sequence, something very unusual if not unique in 1951. In this scene, British commandos are shown landing from a submarine off the coast of North Africa, before launching an assault on a German base in an attempt to assassinate Rommel. The scene runs for about 5 minutes and feels as if it was tacked on to the beginning after someone at Twentieth Century Fox decided the film needed more action.

The whole sequence seems like pure Hollywood hokum, but it's very loosely based on a real event. Operation Flipper was a British raid on a German base in Libya, thought to be Rommel's headquarters, in 1941. Whether Rommel really was a target of the raid is debated, as his killing or capture was not made an official objective. The British probably also knew that Rommel was absent at the time, through decrypted Enigma intercepts, although the fact that they had broken the German Enigma codes was still top secret when the film was made in 1951.


Original US poster for The Desert Fox
Original US poster for The Desert Fox

Discussion of Rommel's abilities as a military commander is a bit outside of my remit, but the wartime building-up of the reputation of “The Desert Fox” as a master strategist was probably partly a convenient way to explain the early failure of British commanders to defeat the Afrika Korps. The British had enjoyed stunning success against the Italian forces in the North African campaign, but subsequently found it much harder fighting against the Germans. What better way of explaining this than the fact that British commanders were fighting against a military genius?

It was also not widely known in 1951 that at least some of Rommel's military successes were due to serious Allied intelligence failures. The dispatches sent to Washington by a US liaison officer attached to the British forces were being decrypted by the Germans, thereby giving them advance knowledge of British military plans and strategies.

Rommel had previously been played as a hissable pantomime villain by Erich von Stroheim in Billy Wilder's wartime thriller Five Graves to Cairo (1943), but The Desert Fox ran into some problems on release, and was criticised for its more sympathetic treatment of a German General only 6 years after the end of WWII. To partially make amends, Twentieth Century Fox produced a follow up, The Desert Rats (1953), starring Richard Burton as a British officer in the desert war, with James Mason appearing in a cameo role as Rommel. Like The Desert Fox, its filming locations were American rather than African, with both films partly filmed at Borrego Springs in California.

The Desert Fox is dramatically uneven and not very illuminating as a biopic, but it's a serviceable enough movie. Nunnally Johnson's bitty script makes for a rather disjointed story and audiences will only learn the very basics about its lead character. Its emphasis on Rommel's disputed involvement in the July Plot is also problematic. James Mason, however, is on good form, and his dignified performance is enough to make The Desert Fox worth watching, despite its flaws.


The Desert Fox

Year: 1951
Genre: Biopic, War
Country: USA
Director: Henry Hathaway

Cast  James Mason (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel), Cedric Hardwicke (Dr Karl Strolin), Jessica Tandy (Frau Rommel), Luther Adler (Adolf Hitler), Everett Sloane (General Burgdorf), Leo G. Carroll (Field Marshal von Rundstedt), George Macready (General Fritz Bayerlein), Richard Boone (Captain Hermann Aldinger), Eduard Franz (Colonel von Stauffenburg), William Reynolds (Manfred Rommel), Michael Rennie (voice of Desmond Young).

Screenplay Nunnally Johnson, based on the biography Rommel by Desmond Young  Producer Nunnally Johnson  Cinematography Norbert Brodine  Art Direction Lyle Wheeler, Maurice Ransford  Editor James B. Clark  Music Daniele Amfitheatrof

Running time 88 mins (black & white)
Production company/distributor Twentieth Century Fox



Comments

  1. I recall seeing this for the first time on television in the 1960s and watching it with my father. The combination of movies like this plus WW2 documentaries prevalent at the time impressed my young mind as events rather more contemporary in nature than historical. On one hand, I believe it shaped a realistic view of history and timelines, but on the other hand I'm not sure what decade I truly grew up in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's probably more common than you might think. WWII was so dominant in the culture for so long that it probably seemed almost like a contemporary thing.

      Delete
  2. I absolutely love James Mason, and I agree all the way with your assessment of his performance in this film, but...

    Maybe it's just me, but I can't buy Mason as a Nazi.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this and Inside Out were among the first films I ever saw him in, so I got used to seeing him playing Germans. He got cast as them quite a lot (The Blue Max, Cross of Iron, The Boys from Brazil, etc).

      Delete
    2. Well, like you like you said, WWII was so dominant in the culture for so long, pretty much every British got to play a Nazi at least once 😄

      Delete
    3. There probably weren't enough German actors in Hollywood to go round. You can't cast Conrad Veidt in everything!

      Delete

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