The Desert Fox
Cast & Crew
In Nov 1941, a British commando unit lands in Libya, behind German lines, and attempts to assassinate Erwin Rommel, the German field marshal whose cunning and ability to elude the Allies have earned him the nickname "The Desert Fox." The assassination attempt fails, and later, in Jun 1942, Rommel enforces prisoner of war protocol when a group of British soldiers, including Lt. Col. Desmond Young, are captured by the Germans in North Africa. Young is impressed by Rommel's gentlemanly demeanor, and Rommel's reputation as a principled soldier unconcerned with politics grows. Two years and four months later, Rommel is dead, allegedly having died in battle. Rumors that the Nazis have lied about Rommel's death prompt Young to investigate, and he meets with Rommel's widow Lucie and his son Manfred, and searches for official documents. Young discovers that Rommel's downfall began on 23 Oct 1942: Due to a chronic health problem, Rommel is invalided to Germany, while in El Alamein, the German forces are under attack by the Allies. Rommel is summoned back to the desert, where he is outraged to learn that none of the desperately needed supplies and reinforcements have been sent. After ten days of fighting the British, who are now led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Rommel realizes that he must retreat to save his troops from annihilation. When Rommel appeals to Adolf Hitler for permission to retreat, however, he is ordered to hold his position to the last man. Infuriated by Hitler's stupidity, Rommel disobeys his orders. Later, Rommel falls ill again and returns to Germany, after which the Axis forces are conquered by the Allies in Tunis. In Germany, Rommel is visited by an old friend, Dr. Karl Strolin, the mayor of Stuttgart, who is a member of a secret movement to eliminate Hitler before his unwise military decisions result in Germany's destruction. Although Rommel is bitter over Hitler's refusal to support the Afrika Korps, he cannot bring himself to join Strolin's cause. In November 1943, it has become clear that Germany will be invaded by the Allies eventually, and Rommel is assigned to inspect the Atlantic fortifications. A month later, Rommel reports to Field Marshal von Rundstedt outside Paris, and declares that the German defenses are clearly inadequate. Von Rundstedt warns Rommel that all military decisions are now being made by Hitler, who is under the influence of astrologers, and that Rommel will be closely watched, like the other military leaders. In February 1944, Strolin visits Rommel at home, but despite Strolin's insistence that many other prominent men support his plan, Rommel maintains that the plot to dispose of Hitler smacks of Communism. Rommel also declares that as a soldier, he has no business interfering with politics. Strolin finally gets Rommel to confess his hatred of Hitler, however, and later, when the Allies storm the beaches of France on D-Day, von Rundstedt and Rommel lament Hitler's consistently bad strategy. Von Rundstedt, who is aware of the plot against Hitler, encourages Rommel, but states that he himself is too old to rebel. Soon after, Rommel attempts to talk to Hitler one last time, but the "Bohemian colonel's" refusal to listen prompts Rommel to join Strolin's movement. Rommel is seriously injured when his car is bombed by Allied planes, however, and is unconscious when an attempt to kill Hitler fails. Over the next three months, Rommel recovers and is mystified by the lack of press coverage on him, as he is enormously popular with the German people. Finally, in Oct 1944, Generals Burgdorf and Maisel visit Rommel and inform him that he has been charged with treason in connection with the plot to assassinate Hitler. Rommel asserts that he will defend himself in court, but Burgdorf states that he has already been found guilty, and that if he commits suicide, Lucie and Manfred's safety will be guaranteed. Determined to save his family, Rommel agrees to leave with Burgdorf. Rommel bids farewell to Lucie, who promises to tell Manfred the truth later, then says goodbye to his son, and asks his old friend, Capt. Aldinger, to look after them. Rommel then enters the car with Burgdorf, and Lucie cries as her husband disappears into the distance.
Leo G. Carroll
Don De Leo
Capt. John Peters
William Yetter Jr.
Phil Van Zandt
Harold J. Kennedy
Roland "bud" Carpenter
Erwin H. Buechel
James B. Clark
W. F. Fitzgerald
R. L. Hough
Maj. Ralph O. Runyon
Capt. Benton Smythe
Baron Otto Von Strahl
Dr. Howard J. Weinberger
Brig. Desmond Young
The Desert Fox
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
The Desert Fox
Sean McClory (1924-2003)
Born on March 8, 1924 in Dublin, Ireland, he became a leading man at the famous Abbey Theatre in the early '40s and relocated to the United States shortly after World War II. His first roles were small bits as a police officer in two RKO quickies: Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (both 1947). He eventually graduated to more prestigious pictures like The Glass Menagerie (1950), Les Miserables (1952) and John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952).
After a few more supporting roles in quality pictures: Niagara (1953); the sci-fi chiller Them! (1954); and for John Ford again in The Long Gay Line (1955), McClory turned to television. He kept busy for several years with guest roles in a variety of popular shows: Bonanza, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits (1964) and countless others. By the mid-'60s, McClory became slightly more heavy-set, and began tossing off variations of jovial, "oirish" blarney for, yet again John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn (1964); and in a string of Disney pictures: Follow Me, Boys! (1966, his best role, a moving performance as the alcoholic father whose behavior alienates his son, played by a 15-year old Kurt Russell); The Happiest Millionaire (1967), and The Gnome-Mobile (1967), before he returned to television. His final role was in John Huston's acclaimed Irish opus The Dead (1987). He is survived by his wife, Peggy Webber McClory.
by Michael T. Toole
Sean McClory (1924-2003)
too late for me. I'm seventy now--too old to fight, too old to challenge authority, however evil...but not too old, however, to wish you and your friends the best of luck in their extremely interesting enterprise.- Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt
Have you any better suggestions?- Field Marshal Keitel
Yes, one very much better. Make peace, you idiot!- Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt
Luther Adler, who gives a very convincing portrayal of Hitler in the film, was Jewish.
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).