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In 1951, Twentieth Century Fox had a public relations problem. A small one, no doubt, but a P.R. problem nonetheless. After the release and success of their biographical drama, The Desert Fox (1951), starring James Mason as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, some veterans groups from Britain and Australia were offended that their enemy on the battlefield was treated with such respect and sympathy. According to James Mason, in his autobiography, Before I Forget, the soldiers were "affronted" because the film "had assumed that Rommel was as decent a man as a career soldier can be, as decent as Eisenhower, for instance, and had therefore treated him sympathetically." Of course, the sympathetic treatment was entirely apt given the fact that the plot concerned Rommel's decision to join up with a group of conspirators intent on assassinating Adolf Hitler. When someone wants to rid the world of its greatest evil and dies due to his failure to do so, most people would view that as a sympathetic situation.
Still, soldiers who had fought hard-won campaigns against Rommel and seen their friends die wanted the other side shown. They wanted the world to see how difficult the fight was against Rommel and how they had prevailed. It didn't take long for Twentieth Century Fox to turn this minor P.R. problem into an excuse to make a sequel, this time focusing on the Allied Forces and their fight against Rommel in the deserts of Africa.
The film, The Desert Rats (1953), centers around the siege of Tobruk, a port in Libya. The 9th Australian Division was ordered to hold the port of Tobruk for two months. Through constant engagements on the field, bombardments and attack, the Australians did hold it - for eight months! Beginning on April 11, 1941, the Australians would hold their position for 240 days until November 27, 1941, when it was relieved by the Allied 8th Army. Shortly after that, in December, Rommel withdrew entirely, giving up the battle.
James Mason was asked to once again play Rommel although, this time, it would only be for two brief scenes, one at the start of the film as he gives orders to the German officers below him and one in a medic tent as he meets the British Captain "Tammy" MacRoberts (Richard Burton) fighting against his men on the battlefield. Mason didn't want to commit to such a small part playing Rommel again but, as he fully admits in his autobiography, vanity took over:
"I did not want to play it because it was a trivial scene, certainly not one of the leading parts, and did not warrant a starring salary. There was only one consideration that made me lean the other way. In The Desert Fox all the characters had been German and therefore it had been wisely decreed that we make no effort to alter our own British or American accents. In The Desert Rats on the other hand all the characters except Rommel and a German doctor were British and Australian, so the actors who played Rommel and the German doctor would have to play with German accents. I figured, if I did not accept the role, the casting department would be well advised to offer it to a German actor. I did not care for this item because such a German actor would most likely seem much more authentic in his portrayal of Rommel than I had been in The Desert Fox, an invidious comparison which I should avoid."
And so Mason took the role, spoke in a German accent in both German and English and was pleased with the final result. Burton, for his part, was thrilled to be in the same movie with Mason, if only for a single brief scene. And the producers were thrilled to have Burton although they wished for more than they got. From Richard Burton: A Life, by Melvyn Bragg: "He was always fine as a soldier or a man of action. There were no frills and producers regretted that; they yearned for the signature of a Wayne and, later, an Eastwood, a Marvin. Burton did the job on screen as efficiently, one felt, as he would have done it in real life. There was an admirable lack of bullsh*t in Richard Burton's performances."
Robert Wise agreed and said he thought Burton was "agreeable", "hard-working" and "reliable." Not words one associates with the actor and his off-screen persona of the brash, egotistical and hard-drinking Welshman. Although the drinking was real, the rest was largely played off by Burton as a joke on an unsuspecting public. As Bragg says, "he had an irrepressible tendency to send up his interviewers: if they were daft enough to believe it."
Oddly enough, cast as MacRoberts' former schoolmaster, Tom Bartlett, was Robert Newton (the patron saint of pirate voices for his portrayal of Long John Silver in 1950's Treasure Island) , another notorious drinker. On top of that, "life imitates art" took another bow to fate as Tom Bartlett, in the film, was an alcoholic as well. Both Burton and Newton would die in their fifties, Burton from a cerebral hemorrhage, Newton from a heart attack, after lives of bad health due to alcohol abuse. One thing it never affected was their ability to act. Both actors are excellent in The Desert Rats.
Rounding out the superb cast is Robert Douglas, Torin Thatcher (who had previously worked with Burton, playing his father in The Robe ) and the always reliable, always professional Charles "Bud" Tingwell, known to most movie fans as the relentlessly flustered and outwitted Inspector Craddock in the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple series of films, as well as the lawyer in the wonderful The Castle . Directing was Robert Wise, now famous as the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) from two years earlier and proving again that his talents as an editor (on Citizen Kane , no less) served him well as a lean, efficient director.
Once released, The Desert Rats proved a success for all concerned. The veterans got their due praise, the studio got its sequel and the world got Richard Burton. Not a bad deal for anyone concerned. It also proved that a sequel could be just as good, and just as successful, as the original. Something Hollywood would take note of and try to replicate forever after.
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Richard Murphy
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editor: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: Addison Hehr, Lyle WheelerCast: Richard Burton (Capt. "Tammy" MacRoberts), James Mason (Field Marshal Erwin von Rommel), Robert Newton (Tom Bartlett), Robert Douglas (General), Torin Thatcher (Col. Barney White), Chips Rafferty (Sgt. "Blue" Smith), Charles "Bud" Tingwell (Lt. Harry Carstairs).
by Greg Ferrara
Richard Burton: A Life, Melvyn Bragg
Before I Forget, James Mason
The Films of Robert Wise, Richard C. Keenan
Robert Wise on his Films: From Editing Room to Director's Chair, Sergio Leeman