“There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magician or bogeyman to our troops.”
German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was an important figure on two fronts during the Second World War. He is most well known for his involvement in North Africa, beginning in late 1940. Rommel had made his name as a Panzer commander in France in 1940 when he was dispatched by Hitler to stiffen the Italians then fighting in Libya. Supported by modest German forces, he bluffed the British into believing his forces were stronger than they actually were. By the middle of 1941, he had managed to push the British forces eastward into Egypt. His actions earned him the nickname “the Desert Fox.” The front then fluctuated back and forth until in the summer of 1942, a decisive battle at El Alamein led to a German retreat that spelled the eventual end of their domination of North Africa. Rommel returned to Germany where he received a new command.
Following the war, British Brigadier General Desmond Young, who had first-hand knowledge of Rommel’s tactics in North Africa, wrote a biography of Rommel. The film rights were purchased by producer Nunnally Johnson for filming by Twentieth Century-Fox. James Mason was also aware of the book and saw a fine role for himself as Rommel. Fox agreed that he would be right for the part and an agreement was struck. The completed film, The Desert Fox, was released in 1951 and proved to be Mason’s first real box-office and critical success since arriving in Hollywood in 1947.
Fox has now made the film available on DVD as part of its third wave of Fox War Classics.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, revered for his tactics in leading the German Afrika Corps to its many early victories over Allied forces in North Africa, finds his forces finally defeated at El Alamein. Rommel returns to Germany where he is then placed in command of the German forces preparing to defend against an Allied invasion of the continent. During this time, Rommel is also courted by a group of Germans (headed by Dr. Karl Strolin) who desire to overthrow Adolf Hitler before Hitler’s increasingly erratic decisions lead to a complete annihilation of the country at the hands of the Allied forces. As the plot against Hitler comes to a head with an attempt to kill him with a bomb left at his Prussian headquarters, Rommel is seriously injured during an Allied aircraft attack on his car in France. During Rommel’s recovery, there is no reaction from German headquarters as to his progress or his possible involvement in the Hitler plot. Then, after three months, he receives a call from General Keitel concerning a possible new command.
The Desert Fox is one of the more effective film biographies of wartime personages that have been made. Of course, they all pale in comparison to Patton, a film which itself, interestingly, contains a nice, if brief, portrayal of Rommel by Karl Michael Vogler. The Desert Fox has two significant things going for it. One is its rather interesting narrative structure; the other is James Mason.
One would have expected a film about Rommel to concentrate on the North Africa portion of the war. That is not the case with The Desert Fox. The African campaign gets covered in the film’s first quarter, and the rest of the time is devoted to Rommel’s time in France and the various intrigues concerning the plot against Hitler. The film actually begins with a commando raid (briskly executed under the guidance of veteran Fox action director Henry Hathaway) on a house in North Africa — a raid that the British hope will rid them of Rommel and so end the Afrika Corps’ successes. This occurs before the opening credits, an unusual approach for films of the time. Limited time is devoted to battle footage, with the emphasis being placed on the Rommel character rather than faceless soldiers and field commanders. This allows the subsequent events in Europe to be explored more fully and in the end results in a much more interesting film. Hathaway still manages to add vitality to this part of the film with excitingly staged scenes of the attack on Rommel’s car and the setting off of the bomb at Hitler’s headquarters.
James Mason gives the character real gravity while providing Rommel with a human face that almost makes him an appealing figure. This somewhat sympathetic portrait was actually one that drew criticism at the time of the film’s release from a few reviewers as well as from soldiers who had fought against Rommel’s forces in Africa. The cast is filled with excellent and familiar supporting actors portraying many of the key individuals with whom Rommel interacts. Memorable are Leo Carroll as Field Marshal Von Rundstedt, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. Strolin, Everett Sloane as General Burgdorf, and George Macready as Afrika Corps General Bayerlein. Also notable are the likes of Eduard Franz, Richard Boone, and Luther Adler. Jessica Tandy nicely underplays as Frau Rommel.
Fox’s DVD presentation is average at best. The source material does not appear to have been subjected to any restoration, and speckles and debris are common. The full frame presentation (in accord with the original aspect ratio), although somewhat grainy, is fairly presentable. Blacks are fairly deep and shadow detail is often (though not always) quite good. Edge effects are present from time to time, but they are not distracting.
Mono sound tracks (both English and Spanish) are provided. These are workable, without excessive age-related hiss or distortion, but certainly lack the dynamism necessary to really put across the action sequences. They do the job for the dialogue sequences that dominate the film, however. English and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Extras are restricted to trailers. The original English and Spanish trailers are included as are ones for the other titles in this third wave of Fox War Classics.
The Desert Fox is a compact film biography that should appeal to all war film aficionados. Those who had the opportunity to see The Desert Rats, a sequel of sorts that featured a brief James Mason appearance as Rommel and which was released on DVD by Fox in their last wave of war films, can now see the film that led to the latter’s production. The film has been put together with intelligence and an eye to detail. It’s well worth a rental for anyone interested in World War II and a definite purchase for James Mason fans. Fox’s DVD is no eye-opener, but a workmanlike effort that does not detract from the film. Recommended.