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The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox(1951)

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The film's opening title card reads: "Twentieth Century-Fox presents The Desert Fox The Story of Rommel." As the film ends, an offscreen narrator wonders if, during his final drive with Burgdorf, Rommel was bitter about his defeats or remembered his triumphs on the desert battlefields. A different voice-over narrator then repeats a statement made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after the end of World War II: "His ardour and daring inflicted grievous disasters upon us, but he deserves the salute which I made him in the House of Commons in January 1942. He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry."
       Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), a career soldier in the German Army, was best known for his leadership of the Afrika Korps during World War II. Called "The Desert Fox," Rommel exhibited leadership abilities, talent for strategy and military professionalism that inspired much respect from his opponents. Rommel was also immensely popular with the German people, who regarded him as "the people's marshal." As depicted in the film, in 1944, Rommel became involved in an unsuccessful plot to remove Hitler from power, and as a consequence, was asked to commit suicide by the German government. British brigadier Desmond Young, who met Rommel briefly during the war, became intrigued by the German government's cover-up of Rommel's death and investigated it after the war. His research resulted in writing the biography Rommel, which was released in the United States as Rommel, the Desert Fox. Although Young plays himself in the picture, the first person voice-over narration heard throughout the film is performed by Michael Rennie, who also dubs Young's voice in the scenes in which he appears. According to studio publicity, Rommel's widow cooperated with the filmmakers, consulting with producer/writer Nunnally Johnson and loaning the studio some of her husband's personal mementos for use during filming.
       On February 15, 1950, a New York Times article reporting the purchase of Young's book by Twentieth Century-Fox stated that "the title role will be offered to Kirk Douglas." A February 1951 memo contained in the film's MPAA/PCA file at the AMPAS Library noted that "Richard Widmark has been chiefly mentioned as Rommel." Although an April 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item included George Pembroke in the cast, his appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. Studio records indicate that John Goldsworthy was cast as "Gen. Stulpnagel" and Trevor Ward was cast as "Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery," but they do not appear in the released picture. February and August 1950 Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that the studio originally intended to shoot some background footage on location in North Africa, but the plan was eventually abandoned. According to January and March 1951 Hollywood Reporter news items, director Henry Hathaway did shoot background footage in Germany, England and France. The film's main location site was Borrego Springs, CA. According to contemporary sources, The Desert Fox included some battle footage from the 1943 British documentary Desert Victory.
       Information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, reveals that in early January 1951, the film's screenplay was read and approved by John M. McCloy, the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany. Despite receiving the initial approval of McCloy and the U.S. State Department, the studio was heavily criticized for presenting a sympathetic portrayal of Rommel, both before filming and after the picture was released. The film received mixed reviews, with the Hollywood Reporter reviewer commenting, "the moral aspects of the production very likely will set off controversial reaction. Exception certainly will be taken in many quarters to the sympathetic depiction of all Nazis except Hitler, and inference that Nazi Germany's army was invincible." Influential New York Times writer Bosley Crowther was one of the picture's most outspoken critics, and in his review accused the filmmakers of having "a strange disregard for the principles and the sensibilities of those who suffered and bled in the cause of defeating German aggression."
       According to a November 27, 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item, the Warner Theatre chain had "cancelled all bookings and even terminated some runs on The Desert Fox, reportedly on direct orders from Harry M. Warner." In November 1951, Hollywood Reporter and New York Times reported that the U.S. State Department, several American-Jewish organizations and some German officials had strong reservations about the picture being exhibited in Germany, but the film did open in Germany in late August 1952. In December 1951, Hollywood Reporter noted that there were some protests from the public when the film was exhibited in London, and in March 1952, a Variety news item reported that similar disturbances had occurred in Australia and Italy. Subsequent Variety reports detailed problems encountered by the film in Austria and Argentina. Despite the widespread criticism, the picture was a resounding box-office success.
       British-born character actor John Alderson (1916-2006), made his motion picture debut in the film. James Mason briefly reprised his role as "Rommel" for the 1953 Twentieth Century-Fox film The Desert Rats (see below), which emphasized Allied efforts in North Africa during World War II. Other well-known portrayals of Rommel include the 1943 Paramount production Five Graves to Cairo, directed by Billy Wilder, in which Erich von Stroheim played the German military leader (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50) and the 1967 Horizon Pictures-Filmsonor production Night of the Generals, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Christopher Plummer (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).