May 2021

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway


James Mason, Jessica Tandy, Cedric Hardwicke, Leo G. Carroll, Luther Adler, Everett Sloane, William Reynolds, Richard Boone


Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was undoubtedly Germany’s most famous General of WWII and continues to be regarded as one of history’s great military commanders. Gaining fame in North Africa, where his outnumbered Afrika Korps divisions pushed the British back for two years and nearly drove them off the continent, the Desert Fox was held in awe even by those fighting against him, both for his battle prowess and for his famously strict adherence to the rules of war. Recalled back to Germany before the end in Africa, he did not share the fate of his captured men, although he would have been more fortunate if he had. His star never again reaching its former heights after the African campaign, he tried and failed to defend Normandy against the Allied invasion and died a few months later, officially of injuries suffered when his staff car was strafed by Allied planes little over a month after D-Day. Only after the war did both the Allies and the German people learn the more complex and dramatic truth: Hitler had forced his once favorite General to commit suicide when information regarding his involvement in or at least knowledge of the conspiracy to overthrow him reached his ears. While Rommel has been portrayed onscreen in a number of war films, by far the best-known and most extensive depiction came in 1951, only seven years after his death, in the form of Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel. That such a sympathetic—indeed, practically sanctified–portrayal of Rommel could be made so soon after the end of the war is telling of the high regard in which Rommel was held even by his enemies. Unfortunately, a disjointed and episodic narrative structure, stilted dialogue and performances, and an interminable amount of WWII stock footage results in a mediocre production that doesn’t really do its subject justice.

The story is based on the same-named biography by Desmond Young, a British officer who had a brief encounter with Rommel during the war. Young appears as himself in an early cameo, but his rather heavy-handed narration is delivered by Michael Rennie. After a somewhat tedious pre-credit sequence detailing a failed British attempt to assassinate Rommel, and a second prologue portraying Young’s fleeting glimpse of the Desert Fox, we jump into the decisive Battle of El Alamein, at which Rommel, after a string of victories, was finally driven into retreat by General Montgomery. Rommel (James Mason) still wants to believe in the Führer at this point, but is shocked and disgusted by suicidal orders ordering him to stand or die; with naiveté that smacks of willful denial, he chooses to blame these insane orders on the men around Hitler instead of Hitler himself, despite Hitler’s signature. Ill and discouraged, he is recalled to Germany before Hitler’s bungling finally destroys the Afrika Korps. Rommel feels Hitler has betrayed his men but is still making excuses for him, and plunges whole-heartedly into his next big assignment: preparing the Normandy coastline against the impending Allied invasion. Meanwhile, he proves less skillful in other matters, particularly when approached by an old friend, Dr. Karl Stroelin (Cedric Hardwicke), who sounds him out about a plot to assassinate Hitler. This is the real center of The Desert Fox; the internal conflict of a man who has only ever wanted to be a simple soldier, but must reluctantly confront the more complicated reality.  Ironically, for this military man who never wanted anything to do with politics, it will be politics which will cost him his life.

This is inherently dramatic material, but The Desert Fox manages to turn what could easily be a rollicking war biopic into a dull and dreary movie. With its limited budget and narrow scope, it gives us the more personal side of a famed General, but anyone expecting plenty of war action won’t get enough here to satisfy their appetite. The battles consist entirely of WWII stock footage, which drags on for too long and isn’t always integrated well with the rest of the movie. We almost always see Rommel with his officers at headquarters; in fact, Rommel was very much a frontline commander who has been criticized by some military historians for impetuously dashing off to battle and often being out of touch with his staff for hours, personally leading tank attacks and once driving so far ahead of his troops on reconnaissance that he was mistaken for the enemy and shot at by his own men. The film doesn’t really bring that across. It is also worth noting that the film starts at the beginning of Rommel’s disillusionment with Hitler at El Alamein. Not only does beginning at the turning point of El Alamein mean we don’t see Rommel in his heyday and thus have to settle for being told—incessantly—how brilliant he is without ever really seeing for ourselves why he is such a legendary figure, it also conveniently omits the previous years in which Rommel held an exalted opinion of the Führer, even more so than some of his brother German Generals. Another problem with The Desert Fox is its structure. The opening failed British commando raid, while a true event, has nothing to do with the main storyline, and seems tacked on to provide an action-packed opening (and maybe bump up the still only eighty-eight minute running time). After that, The Desert Fox is a pretty basic skim through of Rommel’s final months, giving us a lot of scenes of characters standing around having dry conversations, occasionally interspersed with some stock battle footage.

James Mason is by far the best-known Rommel portrayer, and his performance has been much-praised, but Mason himself never felt he quite did the role justice, and I am afraid I would have to agree. Mason does not act badly, per se, but he seems ill-suited to the part. I admit part of this is because he is British. The cast of The Desert Fox is made up of British and American actors, only one or two of whom, in small roles, make any attempt at a German accent. Mason is more distracting than the others, partly because he is the main character, partly because his thorough Englishness is not only a matter of his accent, but also his manner. Rommel was from a lower-middle class family with a bulldoggish attitude and a rough tongue who was not afraid to snap at Generals of higher rank than himself. On the other hand, there were few actors who seemed more stereotypical stuffy, proper British gentleman than James Mason, lacking the more blunt and rougher-around-the-edges demeanor that would have suited the part. In fact, while Mason’s Rommel is much better-known, Robert Hossein in obscure Italian B-movie The Battle of El Alamein fits much more with my image of Rommel. The narration repeatedly refers to Rommel as a ‘cool, hard professional soldier’, and a ‘single-minded warrior’, but Hossein seems to fit this image much more than Mason, and for that matter, for the fleetingness of his appearance, so did Karl Michael Vogler in Patton : more blunt, more hard-nosed and no-nonsense, with no time for Mason’s mannered melodrama. Arguably the best performance in the film, and the one which holds up the most, is a young Jessica Tandy, who is strong and underplayed as Rommel’s loyal wife Lucie (though, this being a 1950s movie, she’s relegated to being the hand-wringing supportive/worried good little wife).  Cedric Hardwicke is also good as Dr. Stroelin, who must persuade Rommel to commit to the plot and tires of what he sees as Rommel hiding behind the excuse of military loyalty; he hits perhaps his strongest note when he asks why Rommel doesn’t have the same common sense and courage politically as he does on the battlefield.  Everett Sloane brings a veiled menace to General Burgdorf, relayer of Hitler’s final order to Rommel. Leo G. Carroll underplays a little too much as Rommel’s superior in France, Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Granted, von Rundstedt was a reserved aristocrat, but Carroll comes across as dreary and tediously dour. Luther Adler supplies a cartoonish cameo as Hitler. He looks basically nothing like him, and his over-the-top ‘vat is zat’ German accent proves that sometimes it’s just as well when actors don’t bother. A young, slim Richard Boone has a small role as Rommel’s faithful aid Aldinger.

Along the way there are a few effective scenes. Hardwicke has a nice bit where he eludes a Gestapo tail at the train station, the assassination attempt on Hitler works pretty well for its brief depiction, and most importantly, the final scene has not completely lost its poignancy. By 1950s standards, the filmmakers stick pretty close to the facts, even though the eighty-eight minute running time gives a pretty superficial skim through. The film also arguably goes overboard in its sanctifying of Rommel, who is so whitewashed of any unsavory aspects into such a paradigm of virtue that it threatens to make him a one-dimensional too good to be true character who only exists in movies. While Rommel was never a member of the Nazi Party, and in fact ignored orders from Hitler himself both to execute captured Jewish soldiers and British commandos, he initially idolized Hitler. Most modern historians also agree that Rommel’s alleged involvement in the plot against Hitler was probably exaggerated. According to those who knew him closely, it seems that, at most, he supported Hitler being arrested and placed on trial, opposing the actual assassination attempt on the grounds that it would make a martyr out of him, and even whether Rommel gave concrete support to the plot at all is an ambiguous subject of debate, although it seems clear that he at least knew of it and had some peripheral connections with the conspirators (his Chief of Staff in France, Hans Speidel, who is not so much as mentioned in the movie, was a prominent figure within the plot), which would have been enough to condemn him in Hitler’s eyes. At least one character trait The Desert Fox gets right is that in some ways Rommel was a curiously simple, naive man to whom it seemed to come as a jarring shock that his commander-in-chief was not all he initially believed him to be (Rommel is quoted by his son as remarking to him, about Hitler, that ‘sometimes you get the feeling he’s no longer quite normal’, in one of the great epic understatements in recorded history; later, unsurprisingly not so long before he ended up receiving a fatal visit from Hitler’s lackeys, Rommel was more forthrightly damning Hitler to his friends as a ‘damned fool’, ‘sadist’, and ‘pathological liar’). A warts and all portrait of Erwin Rommel, like the approach taken with George Patton in Patton, would be a much more complex and interesting character study. Rommel is entirely deserving of the center of attention in a lengthy, big-budget Patton-style biopic (Rommel’s overall story, which has always seemed like something that could have come out of a Shakespearean play, arguably provides even more fertile ground than Patton’s). Barring a suitable German actor, I think Ed Harris would be a good choice for the role. Unfortunately, a major big-budget biopic of a ‘Nazi’ General doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. As it is, I appreciate that this is the most extensive depiction of Rommel we are likely to get for the time being, but there is still plenty of room for another cast and crew to step up to the plate and give us the definitive depiction of The Desert Fox.