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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Vintage Movie Review: The Desert Fox

Directed by Henry Hathaway
Starring James Mason and Jessica Tandy

I very much enjoyed this movie - It depicts Rommel's as both a military genius and a hero, a man who fought for Hitler's Reich but would have nothing to do with the SS. So well regarded was Rommel, even amongst his enemies that Churchill even paid tribute to him in a speech before the House of Commons. Parts of this speech are played out at the end of the film.

These days there is controversy over Rommel and a German film currently in production is said to cast him as a war criminal, but Hathaway's movie depicts Rommel as a great leader, a genius tactician and a man who grew to despise Hitler and his Third Reich.

The movie begins with Rommel's defeat by the Allies in North Africa, and finds him disobeying an order from Hitler to throw his men to certain death - no retreat, fight to the last man. The staging of the battle scenes in El Alemain and later Normandy are incredibly lifelike but then they are real - the director used actual footage from the war within the movie which gives it something of a semi documentary feel. This not only adds to the realism but gives the production much gravitas - when this movie was made the war had of course only been over a mere six years.

In the movie, Rommel is disgusted by Hitler's command that his armies seek "victory or death". Gradually, he turns against the F├╝hrer. Rommel's opposition to Hitler has helped create his image as the second world war German field marshal it's okay to like. Though he fought for Hitler, he never joined the Nazi party, and there is some evidence that he despised the so called Final Solution.

Eventually Rommel lends his support to the removal  of Hitler, but hopes that by meeting with Hitler he can get him to see reason. At the tension-packed meeting, Luther Adler (a Jewish actor!) plays Hitler. He accuses Rommel of defeatism and not knowing the big picture. The new V weapons will win the war - his performance her depicts Hitler as a man completely out of touch with reality, almost a mental case. It seems that Hitler is building his tactics around the suggestions of his astronomer. War by horoscope. Rommel holds back, but James Mason's performance here is brilliantly nuanced and without a word of dialogue his inner feelings are clear to the viewer.  Soon afterwards  Rommel is wounded when his vehicle is struck by allied bombs and he  is in the hospital when the assassination on Hitler fails. Three months later, his involvement catches up with him while home convalescing.

Gen. Burgdorf, a typical yes man, turns up at Rommel's home with a warrant for his arrest for treason, and Rommel is given the option of taking his own life so that the official story will be that he died from wounds sustained in glorious battle.  At first Rommel is furious and wants to face a court of law but he realises that the only way to save his family is to take the poison provided to him. This is what really happened and the truth about Rommel's death would not be discovered until the Nuremberg trials following the war.

Original Trailer

An excellent film - a character study rather than a traditional war movie, and James Mason is superb in the role, in fact his performance here became one of his signature roles. The movie was part of a concerted effort to recast Rommel as a good German, to help repatriate West Germany's post-war reputation. The film's focus is on his gentlemanly mannerisms, strong familial bonds, increasing disgust with Hitler and finally his support, morally at least, for the plot to oust the Nazi leader.
The real Rommel

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