Cast & Crew
In mid-Apr 1941, during World War II, Germany's Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, has repeatedly beaten the Allies in the struggle for control of North Africa. Desperate to prevent Rommel from gaining control of the Suez Canal, the British Army, in retreat and trying to rebuild its strength, establishes one last stronghold in Tobruk. The British headquarters in Cairo orders the 9th Australian Division to hold Tobruk for two months, at which time they will be relieved. The general meets with artillery colonel Barney White and other officers to explain that the division will have three perimeters of defense: the outlying perimeter of infantry, the second perimeter of White's artillery, and the inner line of fortifications. The general, needing an experienced field officer to oversee the green Australian troops assigned to the infantry perimeter, chooses English officer Capt. Tammy MacRoberts. MacRoberts, a coolly efficient and unemotional officer who is disliked by the Australians, is surprised to see among their ranks his former schoolmaster, Tom Bartlett. As the battalion marches to their desert outpost, they are hit by artillery, and the men resent being pushed on by MacRoberts instead of being allowed to tend to their fallen comrades. At their encampment, Barlett, an alcholic, explains to MacRoberts that after being dismissed from his job in England due to his drinking, he went to Australia and joined the Army while intoxicated. MacRoberts offers to obtain a transfer for the older man, whom he still calls "sir," but Bartlett insists on staying to prove that he is not a coward. During the day, the men dig foxholes and prepare for an upcoming attack by Rommel's tanks, which the general hopes will be annihilated by White's artillery. During a sandstorm, it appears that the tanks will not enter the perimeter where the general predicted, but at the last minute, they change course and head directly over MacRoberts' covered men. The German infantry follows the tanks and engages the Australians in a fierce battle, during which one of their officers, Capt. Currie, is wounded. Lt. Harry Carstairs abandons his vital post to retrieve Currie, although too late to save his life, and after the Germans retreat, an infuriated MacRoberts vows to have Carstairs court-martialed for disobeying orders. Although Sgt. Blue Smith tries to defend MacRoberts, who is now the company's commander, other soldiers grumble that he got Currie killed and should not be so hard on Carstairs. Bartlett then discusses Carstairs with MacRoberts and pleads for leniency, but MacRoberts insists that he cannot allow sentiment to interfere, otherwise he will not be an effective leader. When MacRoberts goes to headquarters, however, he asks the general to tear up the court-martial request, and both he and Carstairs receive field promotions. The general then outlines a plan to erode the Germans' confidence by making small commando raids every night. Even though their casualties are high, as May and Jun pass, MacRoberts' commando patrols exact a toll on the German offensives. One day, after learning the location of a German underground ammunition dump, the general suspects that Rommel may be planning another big push, but the dump is too far away to be attacked during a single nighttime raid. Deciding to use captured Italian trucks as camouflage, the general asks for a company to volunteer, and MacRoberts, knowing his men are sick of two months of being shelled, volunteers them. MacRoberts, who has made Bartlett his clerk in order to protect him, refuses his request to accompany the patrol, then sets out with three trucks loaded with men. During the attack on the German camp, the men fight fiercely and succeed in wiring a bomb to the dump, but before it can be detonated, the soldier in charge is killed. Both MacRoberts and Carstairs leap off their departing truck to detonate the charge, but Carstairs does not survive the blast. The wounded MacRoberts is captured, and while he is being examined in a medical tent, Rommel, who has also been wounded, enters. Although he is respectful of Rommel's superior rank, MacRoberts defiantly states that he will never control the Suez without first capturing Tobruk, which the Allies have held against all odds. Rommel is bemused by the younger man's brashness and orders that he be treated well. Later, as the prisoners are being transported, their trucks are attacked, and MacRoberts and Smith, who was also captured, escape. After an exhausting walk through the desert, the pair reaches camp and joins the fight again. Although Tobruk has been subjected to prolonged attacks by the Luftwaffe and Rommel's artillery and infantry, the Australians, now nicknamed "the desert rats" for their tenacity and foxholes, have held the town for eight months rather than the originally ordered two months. In November, the general tells his officers that the relief column, led by Gen. Claude Auchinleck is headed for Tobruk, and that they need a company to hold a key location, the Ed Duda hill, which overlooks the road on which Auchinleck is traveling. The general assigns MacRoberts' men, ordering them to hold the hill for three days, and as they march, the men grumble about MacRoberts "volunteering" them for another dangerous assignment. Although the men learn that they were chosen because they have become the best-trained and most efficient company in Tobruk, the knowledge is little comfort as the three days stretch into nine. On the morning of the ninth day, fearing that the men can take no more, MacRoberts orders a retreat, although Bartlett begs him to ask the men to stick with it until Auchinleck arrives. The men refuse to leave, despite MacRoberts' orders, and Bartlett proves his own dedication by taking the dangerous forward gunner's position. Just as the Germans begin what would be a deadly assault, the Australians hear bagpipes announcing the arrival of Auchinleck's troops. After a hard-won 242 days, the Allies have held Tobruk and broken Rommel's hold on North Africa.
Paul V. Busch
Robert L. Jacks
J. Richard Maybery
Fred J. Rode
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Desert Rats
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 Wheeler Cast: 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
The Desert Rats
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
Born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Ind., Wise was a child of the Depression who quit college to earn a living in the movie industry. He began as an assistant cutter at RKO, where he worked his way up to the position of film editor and earned an Oscar® nomination for his bravura work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. He also edited The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Welles, along with several other RKO films.
Wise became a director by default when RKO and producer Val Lewton assigned him to The Curse of the Cat People (1944) after Gunther von Fritsch failed to meet the film's production schedule. Wise turned the film into a first-rate psychological thriller, and enjoyed equal success with another Lewton horror film, The Body Snatcher (1945).
Critical praise also was showered upon Wise's Born to Kill (1947), a crime melodrama; and Blood on the Moon (1948), an unusual psychological Western starring Robert Mitchum. Even more highly regarded was The Set-Up (1949), a no-punches-pulled boxing drama that won the Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Wise moved on from RKO in the early 1950s, directing one of the movies' classic alien invasion films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, for 20th Century Fox.
At MGM he directed Executive Suite (1954), a compelling all-star boardroom drama; Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film bio of boxer Rocky Graziano that established Paul Newman as a major star; and The Haunting (1963), a chilling haunted-hause melodrama. His films for United Artists include Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a submarine drama with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; I Want to Live! (1958), a harrowing account of a convicted murderess on Death Row, with Susan Hayward in her Oscar-winning performance; and the crime caper Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
Wise served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America. He was awarded the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1966, and the Directors Guild's highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award, in 1988. He remained active as a director through the 1970s. His final film, Rooftops (1989) was a musical with an urban setting that recalled West Side Story.
The films in TCM's salute to Robert Wise are Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Born to Kill (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Set-Up (1949), Executive Suite (1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), B>West Side Story (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and The Haunting (1963).
by Roger Fristoe
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
This film is very loosely based on the 1941-1942 battles surrounding Tobruk, Libya, which was being defended by British and Australian troops against the German Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The film does distort actual events, timelines and strategies, however. A May 1952 Los Angeles Herald Express news item reported that Henry Hathaway would direct the picture, with Richard Boone set for the cast. An April 1952 Los Angeles Examiner article announced that Gen. Claude Auchinleck would be acting as a technical advisor on the picture, but the extent of his contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. Hollywood Reporter news items include Jerry Martin and Bela Kovac in the cast, but their appearance in the released picture has not been confirmed. A Hollywood Reporter news item also includes Willis Bouchey in the cast, but he was not seen in the viewed print. As noted by Hollywood Reporter news items, the film was partially shot on location in Borrego Springs, CA.
As numerous contemporary sources pointed out, The Desert Rats was a "follow-up" to the 1952 Twentieth Century-Fox production The Desert Fox, which received widespread criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of Rommel. The Variety reviewer called the 1953 film a "sort of antidote to the previous film's glorification" of Rommel, and the New York Times critic termed The Desert Rats "a frank apology for a blunder of two seasons ago." As noted by some sources, Englishman James Mason, who played Rommel in both films, speaks with a heavy German accent in The Desert Rats, whereas in The Desert Fox, he speaks in his normal voice.
According to a January 13, 1954 Variety article, although The Desert Fox was well received in Egypt, The Desert Rats was banned from exhibition there, presumably because of anti-British feelings. Richard Murphy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story and Screenplay for his work on The Desert Rats. Actor Chips Rafferty also appeared in an Australian production about "the desert rats," entitled The Rats of Tobruk, which was directed by Charles Chauvel and co-starred Peter Finch. That film was released in Australia in 1944 and in the United States in 1951. In 1967, Universal released Tobruk, which was directed by Arthur Hiller and starred Rock Hudson and George Peppard.
Voted Best Actor (Mason--shared with his whole body of work that year) by the 1953 National Board of Review.
Released in United States on Video June 27, 1991
Released in United States Spring May 1953
Released in United States Spring May 1953
Released in United States on Video June 27, 1991