Movie #58: The Desert Fox (1951)


Director: Henry Hathaway

Starring: James Mason

Cedric Hardwicke

Jessica Tandy

Luther Adler

Desmond Young

Told through the eyes and following the research of British Lt. Col. Desmond Young, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel follows the last couple of years of Rommel’s life as he struggles with loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi war effort.  His eventual downfall starts when he disobeys Hitler’s order to stand firm in the face of overwhelming and unrealistic expectations at El Alamein.  He orders his men to fall back, defying his orders because he doesn’t want his Afrika Korps destroyed.

He is approached by a family friend to take part in an assassination attempt, and though he rebuffs his friend at first, eventually he agrees to take part.  This is after he is once again at odds with Hitler prior to D-Day.  After the assassination attempt fails, Rommel is charged with treason and must make a decision to admit guilt and receive an honorable death, or risk his wife and son’s safety by taking his case to public court.

This  movie is pretty straightforward.  It follows a biography written by Desmond Young, a British POW who briefly met Rommel early on in World War 2 and who later went back and learned how Rommel’s war went.  Each scene seems to be done with purpose, and it doesn’t waste time with comic relief and things of that sort.  It sticks with the story, portrays a strong relationship between Rommel and his wife and son.

The acting overall was good.  I especially liked James Mason in the lead role.  I always find it ironic when German characters are played by British actors and there’s no attempt whatsoever to speak with a German accent, let alone use the language at all.  Mason would reprise his role two years later in The Desert Rats, and in it he has a more distinct German accent and is much less likable.  One of the criticisms of this film is that it tries to put a positive spin on a dark part of human history.

Though the film is shot more like a documentary and less romanticized and sentimental, it still feels like it’s going easy on men who performed despicable acts.  I think there was a good balance of the struggle Rommel dealt with and the strength he had to stand and express his thoughts, use his brain, and not just blindly follow Hitler as he got crazier towards the end of the war. The Desert Fox finds a balance of a man with a crisis of conscience who is fighting on the wrong side.

For something somewhat comparable, I’d think of how Robert E. Lee led the armies of the Confederacy in the Civil War.  He wasn’t too particularly crazy about what the Confederacy stood for, but he also could not turn his back on his native Virginia.

The Desert Fox strikes a balance of a decent man caught on the wrong side of history.  I think a film like this really humanizes and tells a story that needs to be told.  Winston Churchill spoke of Rommel in the House of Commons in 1942.  Though they were on opposing sides, Churchill recognized and respected Rommel as a military strategist.  His crisis of conscience and willingness to stand up to Hitler, and ultimately die to save his family, gives a small bright spot to an otherwise dark time in our history.  I’d probably show this film, or parts of it, if I was teaching someone about World War 2 and more specifically Rommel.  Otherwise, I probably won’t watch this film, but I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to see it twice.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


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