Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 1, 2003)
Although most American movies uniformly regard German soldiers from World War II as evil, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel got more even-handed treatment. 1970’s Patton depicted Rommel as the consummate military tactician, and 1951’s The Desert Fox went even further in its positive view of the man.
Fox starts with a look at a November 1941 British commando raid that fails to kill its unnamed target. From there, we see British soldiers in Africa and learn that they regard Rommel as “superhuman”. The flick leaps to June 1942, where we see Rommel’s forces capture Lt. Col. Desmond Young (himself) of the Indian Army. Young narrates the film and then flips forward past Rommel’s death to discuss official Nazi explanations of that event and Young’s attempts to research what really happened to the field marshal.
Next the movie jumps again back to October 1942, where we see the Battle of El Alamein. Problems there require Rommel (James Mason) to return to the front despite an illness. The German forces encounter trauma due to depleted supplies, but Hitler orders no retreat with the command “victory or death”. Rommel tears up this document and the Allies capture many of the troops, though the field marshal himself doesn’t become a prisoner since he’d headed back to Germany for more medical attention.
Back in the Fatherland, we see Rommel in the hospital and also meet his wife Lucie (Jessica Tandy) as well as his son Manfred (William Reynolds) and friend Dr. Karl Stroelin (Cedric Hardwicke). They discuss the rude way in which Hitler dressed down Rommel. This sets up the possibility that some regard the Fuehrer as an obstacle to German success and that some forces may need to remove him.
The movie then leaps to late 1943 as we examine German fortifications to halt the expected Allied landing on the Atlantic coast. Rommel indicates his opposition to Hitler’s choices in that regard. While the two chat, Stroelin again indicates hints of anti-Hitler conspiracies, but Rommel resists these possibilities in early 1944.
We see the failures of the Germans to halt the June 1944 D-Day assaults and we finally start to head toward the plot to remove Hitler. Rommel tries to reason with the Fuehrer (Luther Adler) but he gets nowhere so he casts his lot more firmly with the conspirators. The rest of the film examines what happens with them and the rest of Rommel’s life.
The Desert Fox came as a big disappointment to me. I’ve long maintained an interest in subjects related to World War II, and I eagerly greeted the opportunity to get a good biographical look at one of that era’s most noted combatants. Unfortunately, Fox felt more like Hollywood melodrama than historical drama.
Admittedly, I didn’t expect documentary-style realism, but the broad hamminess of Fox made it difficult to take at times. Much of the problem stemmed from the casting. Mason felt totally inappropriate for Rommel. I’ll admit that part of that occurred due to his accent. I don’t think that actors always have to utilize accurate voices to play roles foreign to them; heck, Sean Connery pulled off a Russian sub commander fairly well in The Hunt For Red October despite his thick Scottish brogue.
However, the accents of Fox actively distracted me. It offered a mélange of intonations, and you’d often find American, British and central European voices all as Germans in the same scene. This made it tough to suspend disbelief and accept the actors as Nazis. The different personalities blended poorly, and this made it difficult to accept them as all part of the same group.
But it wasn’t just Mason’s voice that made him work poorly as Rommel. For lack of a better explanation, he simply seemed too British. He failed to deliver the bluntness that would better fit the role, and he came across as somewhat too proper and prissy to work as Rommel. Mason also offered a one-note take on the part. Essentially Rommel seemed little more than righteously indignant throughout the movie. Though we only saw him a few times, Karl Michael Vogler’s performance as the field marshal in Patton much more closely fit my notion of Rommel; Mason seemed terribly wrong for the part.
Actually, despite the brevity of the Rommel sequences in that flick, Patton appeared to give us a much stronger portrait of the man than did Fox. The earlier film essentially just came across as melodramatic claptrap. Oddly, it told us of all Rommel’s great achievements, but we never got to see any of them. It seemed weird to get a story about a great warrior but we never watched an actual battle. Perhaps this occurred due to budget limitations, but it harmed the verisimilitude of Fox nonetheless.
I found that the pacing of Fox worked poorly as well. The movie really flitted around from time to time badly during the opening minutes, and this gave it a lack of grounding that ultimately harmed it. The film went with more of a conventional chronological attitude after it set up its premise, but the damage was done, and it still sped through events too rapidly.
What’s up with that early exposition anyway? I never quite figured out why the filmmakers bothered to spend so much time with useless set-up to establish Desmond Young and his cause. Perhaps they thought this would make the movie seem more factual and like a documentary, but it didn’t. Instead, it just created a more disjointed piece that seemed like it didn’t know where it wanted to go.
Frankly, The Desert Fox was a mess. It made Rommel look more involved in a plot to remove Hitler than he actually was, and it painted a flaccid portrayal of a noted military man. I won’t even get into how strange it seemed to watch a movie in which a Nazi was essentially treated like a hero, but I can’t say that I cared for that element of it either. I’d love to see a quality take on the life of Field Marshal Rommel, but The Desert Fox offered a poor and goofy examination of the man.