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Short, sharp, and to the point, The Desert Fox is presented in the same manner as Fox's semidocumentary you-are-there pictures begun with Louis de Rochemont's influential The House on 92nd Street. Dramatic scenes are tied together with documentary montages, narration, and other non-fiction content to make the story appear more realistic, and less 'Hollywood'.
The springboard for this valentine to a fallen enemy, one of the few German generals respected by the Allied press, is a memoir by English Brigadier Desmond Young, who appears at the beginning as himself recreating the day when, as a prisoner, he crossed paths with Erwin Rommel. As illustrated in the story (with actors, of course), Young later interviewed Rommel's widow and son and assembled this portrait of a brilliant tactician who abetted the abortive assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. By American standards, Rommel's anti-Hitler stance makes him 'a good German', and therefore worthy of a biopic. The film never addresses whether or not Rommel was personally a Nazi, or an adherent to Nazi beliefs.
The Desert Fox would be a bitty and disconnected docu-drama, if it weren't for the always-impressive acting of James Mason. His Rommel is competent, self-assured, loyal, and aggressive, and the movie treats him as if he were the most wonderful soldier ever born - on the wrong side. Intelligently written with an eye to the facts instead of headlines, the film was one of the first to get home the message that the Germans lost the war mainly because of Adolf Hitler's insane military micromanagement. Spreading fear and confusion among his capable staff, Hitler stifled contradictory backtalk, forcing the leaders of his mighty armed forces to follow his disastrous orders.
A lot of the film is assembled willy-nilly: a commando raid right off the top looks tacked-on, as if needed to bring the picture up to a standard running time and provide it with at least a little action for a trailer. The Rommel we want to see, the man who chased Montgomery back and forth across the African deserts, is merely alluded to in a few brief (but well-cut) montages. We don't meet him until later, when the campaign is essentially already lost; we have to take his earlier successes and brilliance on faith. There are no more battle scenes or action, making The Desert Fox that rare war film that must survive on the intelligence of its script. Enlarge its scope into an epic, with a deeper examination of Rommel's assumed genius, and we'd be looking at a German version of Patton. 1
Historians have concluded that Rommel was aware of the coup attempt, but was not a central figure in it. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson seizes on that fact to make Rommel's story the tragedy of a man who acted too late on his better instincts. Had Hitler been killed, it's unclear whether the vicious power structure left behind would have had the sense to stop the war and sue for surrender before Germany was utterly destroyed. But could Goebbels, or Hitler's overlapping terror police organizations, have held the country together in the absence of Hitler's personal leadership?
From Rommel's point of view, the best outcome would have been to jettison Hitler and his criminal gang at an earlier date, thus freeing the Army to prosecute the war in a more competent fashion. Whether this could have worked as Rommel hoped, no-one knows, but the film's sympathy for Rommel's personal plight seems to overlook the obvious: we should be grateful for Hitler's incompetence and tenacity, for without them the war would surely have dragged on much longer, and been far more costly in Allied lives. 2
Rommel's home life in The Desert Fox is expertly sketched. Jessica Tandy underplays as his modest wife, and William Reynolds is his grown son Manfred. (spoiler) The Roman-style 'slash your wrists and we'll take care of your family' sentence handed Rommel becomes poignant, and gives the film an emotional center.
As in the other Hathaway quasi-documentaries, Hollywood actors impersonate real people as dryly as possible and try to keep the enlivening 'acting' to a minimum. Leo G. Carroll looks more like Droopy Dog than a German Field Marshall, but his deadpan pessimism is well-judged. Everett Sloane soft-pedals the menace as an officer with a dirty diplomatic mission. George Macready's personality is almost submerged in his brief role. As a steadfast aide Richard Boone gets a couple of strong moments, offering to put up a fight when Rommel's arrest is imminent.
The toughest part goes to Luther Adler as Hitler. The Führer is such a strong and iconic figure, that he's often kept offscreen or in profile when portrayed in films, not out of respect (as with key religious figures) but because the public isn't used to getting up-close with him except in parodies like To Be or Not To Be or The Great Dictator. Adler plays him straight, and gives us a taste of the intimidating, threatening method by which he imposed his will on his subjects. He's only in a brief pair of scenes, but despite the fact that he barely resembles the paper-hanging s.o.b., Adler is pretty convincing. Even Mason is out-shouted, which isn't easy.
Under-appreciated actor Eduard Franz (a native chief in last week's The Indian Fighter) cooly plays the brief role of von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed colonel who brought the bomb into Hitler's bunker. Michael Rennie must have taken an afternoon off from playing Klaatu, for it is his voice that reads the film's just-the-facts narration, and over-dubs the dialogue for author/actor Desmond Young.
Fox's DVD of The Desert Fox is a fine transfer of this flat, b&w film. The newsreel footage of course doesn't look as good as the rest of the photography, which is so crisp we can see the extensive use of matte paintings - this is actually very tightly-budgeted for a big studio title.
A short newsreel about D-Day, and a selection of vintage trailers in foreign languages ("El Zorro del Desierto!") round out the modest, well-balanced package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Patton made that
general's genius seem limited to pushing hard, striking hard, and not letting up no matter what
the cost. What we don't get from these movies is any appreciation for real strategic brilliance.
Rommel got his reputation for more than a few amazing moves, reportedly reversing several defeats into
victories. War movies almost always keep strategy at a kindergarten level of
push and shove - it would be great to be shown, for once, a command genius in action.
2. Interestingly, the dialogue makes reference to Hitler's use of
astrologers to plot battle strategy, while competent commanders like Rommel have to sit on their
hands. I guess we should be grateful that Hitler, like, never got his hands on the Arc of the