“Come out of your holes, you desert rats. Let’s go!”
By May 1941, German troops under the command of Erwin Rommel had taken virtual control of North Africa, having forced the British to retreat to Egypt. The sole hold-out was the city of Tobruk, located on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Libya. There, an Australian garrison remained, acting as a continual thorn in Rommel’s left flank as he probed eastward to Egypt. The story of Tobruk has been dramatized on film several times. The first effort was a 1948 Australian film called The Fighting Rats of Tobruk starring Chips Rafferty, a well-known Australian actor of the time. More recently, there was a major 1967 production titled simply Tobruk starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard, with direction by Arthur Hiller. Bracketed by these films was a 20th Century-Fox production made in 1953 called The Desert Rats. Fox has now released this film on DVD as part of its latest wave of Fox War Classics.
British infantry captain MacRoberts is assigned to lead a company of Australian recruits recently arrived in Tobruk. MacRoberts has his difficulties in winning the men’s confidence, but he is gradually able to bring his command up to fighting form. Despite repeated attempts by German forces to over-run the city, the Australian garrison continues to hold out. At one point, MacRoberts volunteers his men to undertake a dangerous commando mission behind German lines in order to destroy an ammunition dump and so slow German progress. Finally, after nearly eight months, relief of Tobruk is in sight, but there is one final German onslaught to hold off and MacRoberts’s group is assigned to hold a vital position until British troops can arrive from Egypt.
The Desert Rats’s title comes from the nickname given the Australian troops at Tobruk who had to resort to hiding in the rocky holes and crevices of the area in order to survive repeated German bombardments. I suspect the title was also appealing to Fox, as it was a natural way to tie the film into its earlier successful biographical film about Rommel — The Desert Fox. That 1951 film starred James Mason in a powerhouse performance as Rommel, and Mason was induced to repeat his role once again in The Desert Rats, although it was a much lesser part in that film. Despite its briefness, Mason’s work is the best of the three actors who are first billed in the film. Not far behind, however, is Richard Burton, who at the time was just starting to gain some notice for his work, particularly in the enjoyable 1953 mystery, My Cousin Rachel. Burton plays MacRoberts and delivers a fairly solid portrayal (despite a couple of overwrought lapses) of the disliked “Pommie” commander in a role that is somewhat akin to that of Gregory Peck’s General Savage in Twelve O’Clock High. Robert Newton finds himself once again wasted playing a drunk — this time as MacRoberts’s former schoolmaster, Bartlett, who turns up as an inebriated private among the Australian troops. The role does offer a little more scope than usually afforded Newton, however, and there are a couple of nice moments between his character and MacRoberts. Unfortunately, the ending contains a ludicrous, but typically Hollywood, sequence involving Bartlett. On a side note, Chips Rafferty (see above) also has a small role in the film.
While I can’t attest to the accuracy of any of the specific incidents or individuals portrayed in the film, in general terms, major events and locations appear to be correct. The film rightly gives credit to the Australian soldiers, even if the main characters aren’t Australian. The film moves along briskly under the direction of Robert Wise and the various action sequences are well-staged and exciting. At 88 minutes, the film is easy to take and an entertaining time-passer.
Fox ‘s DVD release is one of about half a dozen Fox war films newly released on DVD. The black and white film is presented full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. The transfer is a bit ragged-looking with numerous speckles and scratches occurring throughout the film. At times, the image seems a little dark, even given the amount of night-time scenes, and shadow detail often suffers. The film is certainly quite watchable and it’s good to have it available, but there is no evidence of much attention to any clean-up for this release.
We get both stereo and mono English soundtracks, but there’s little difference of consequence between the two. Dialogue is clear and fairly free of age-related effects. Explosions in the action sequences have a little bit of oomph, but pale, of course, in comparison to more modern such effects. Mono soundtracks are also provided in French and Spanish. English subtitles are available as is an optional feature that forces English subtitling for the German language parts of the film only.
Supplements include the original theatrical trailer and trailers for a fistful of other Fox war films available on DVD.
The Desert Rats is a watchable Second World War film that moves along briskly and contains a couple of good lead performances. Fox’s DVD treatment is average at best. A rental is certainly a good investment, but purchases are probably best limited to war-film collectors or James Mason enthusiasts.