Release Date: June 2, 2003
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Actors: James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy, Luther Adler, Everett Sloane
Directors: Henry Hathaway, Robert Wise
The Desert Fox, released six years after the end of the War, is a solemnly respectful tribute to Erwin Rommel, Germany's most celebrated military genius. James Mason's portrayal of this gallant warrior became a highlight of his career iconography. The film itself is oddly disjointed, though: a pre-credit commando raid to liquidate Rommel is followed by a flashback to the field-marshal's lightning successes commanding the Afrika Korps--a compressed account via documentary footage and copious narration (spoken by Michael Rennie, who also dubs Desmond Young, the Rommel biographer and one-time British POW appearing briefly as himself). The dramatic core is Rommel's growing disenchantment with Hitler (Luther Adler), his involvement in the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer, and his subsequent martyrdom.
The Desert Rats stars Richard Burton in only his second Hollywood role (between Oscar-nominated turns in My Cousin Rachel and The Robe), as a Scottish commando put in charge of a battalion of the 9th Australian Division defending Tobruk. The Aussies don't like him, and with a year of grim North African duty already under his belt, he's not too crazy about his new responsibilities either. The outfit is charged with staving off the battering assaults of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel for two months, to give the British Army time to regroup in Cairo and prepare for a counterattack. In the end, the "desert rats" play hell with the Desert Fox for 242 days, during which time they and their commander develop some mutual respect.
This is a solid, workmanlike World War II picture that, having been made in 1953 rather than 1943, can acknowledge a degree of eccentric humanity and soldierly professionalism in the enemy. Featured guest star James Mason reprises his Rommel from The Desert Fox, playing all his scenes in German except for a scene of ironical repartee with Burton. Another distinguished Brit, Robert Newton, gets costar billing as a boozy, self-confessed coward who used to be Burton's schoolmaster. However, a goodly number of Australians--including Chips Rafferty and Charles "Bud" Tingwell rate at least as much screen time. Robert Wise directed, with a trimness that reminds us he started out as an editor, and the pungent black-and-white cinematography is by Lucien Ballard. --Richard T. Jameson