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World War II, unlike the Vietnam War, was a conflict that American filmmakers had no problem presenting on the big screen. The Allies, after all, won the war, and the demarcation line between good and evil was abundantly evident - audiences had little trouble understanding that they should be rooting against the Nazis, regardless of which actors might be playing them. But that viewpoint was challenged somewhat with the release of The Desert Fox (1951), Henry Hathaway's biopic about Erwin Rommel, the storied German field commander who valiantly led his troops through Africa, confronted the Allies on D-Day, and eventually came to view Hitler as a madman who had to be stopped.
James Mason plays Rommel as a dignified, considerate soldier who deeply loved his wife (Jessica Tandy) and son (William Reynolds), and approached warfare as more of a chess game than the sanctioned slaughter of an enemy. These traits may have been part of the real life Rommel's psychological makeup, but, understandably, there were more than a few U.S. critics who found such a portrait questionable, if not downright distasteful, a mere six years after the most horrific world conflict in human history had ended.
There's an enormous amount of ground to cover in Rommel's story, so Hathaway is only able to skim the surface. The most exciting portion of the film follows Rommel's campaign in North Africa, leading the tank-heavy Afrika Korps. Rommel's deliberate rejection of Hitler's orders to force his men to fight to their deaths, regardless of an imminent Allied victory, is the kind of thing that gives the picture its spin. Never before had a well-known enemy soldier been shown in such a sympathetic light in an American film. When Rommel somewhat grudgingly joins Col. Von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) in an attempt to assassinate Hitler (played, with proper histrionics, by Luther Adler), many American viewers found themselves cheering for him.
But not all of them did. Bosley Crowther, the legendary critic for The New York Times, wrote in his unconvinced review, "This simply appears to be another case in which anxiety to make a rousing picture has overridden moral judgment and good taste - a lapse to which the Hollywood nabobs are as prone as anyone else." He also notes the irony that the picture's impressive nighttime battle footage was lifted from another film called Desert Victory (1943), which follows the Allied campaign to drive Rommel and his troops from Africa.
One of the more fascinating elements of The Desert Fox is a performance by former British brigadier general Desmond Young as himself. Young met Rommel briefly while the war was still being fought, and was impressed by him. He then grew interested in the German government's attempts to cover up the circumstances of Rommel's death, and ended up writing the book upon which The Desert Fox was based. Young is competent in the film, although the narration that he is supposedly delivering is supplied by actor Michael Rennie!
In his autobiography, Before I Forget, Mason notes that Young, adept or not, didn't escape the famous on-set wrath of director Hathaway. Before he had ever worked with Hathaway, Mason was watching footage that had already been shot of the battle scenes: "The scenes I watched had been shot with sound, although there was very little on the sound tracks that could possibly be used in the finished film, and so Hathaway was shouting his directions throughout, very much, I imagined, as directors had done in the days of silent movies. Desmond Young was playing the part of Desmond Young and was doing as well as an amateur could be expected to do under the circumstances, and Hathaway was yelling at him like an all-in wrestling fan. The voice came in high-pitched and bristling with obscenities. He was not being mean to Young. It was just his way."
One assumes a decorated war veteran like Young could hold up under such pressure. At least when Hathaway shot at him, it was with blanks.
Director: Henry Hathaway
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (based on the biography by Desmond Young)
Editor: James B. Clark
Cinematographer: Norbert Brodine
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Art Design: Lyle Wheeler, Maurice Ransford
Special Effects: Fred Sersen, Ray Kellogg
Set Design: Thomas Little, Stuart A. Reiss
Cast: James Mason (Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel), Cedric Hardwicke (Dr. Karl Strolin), Jessica Tandy (Frau Lucie Marie Rommel), Luther Adler (Adolf Hitler), Everett Sloane (Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf), Leo G. Carroll (Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt), George Macready (Gen. Fritz Bayerlein), Richard Boone (Capt. Hermann Aldinger).
by Paul Tatara