Film #8 in the World War II Marathon!
Screenplay By: Nunnally Johnson
Directed By: Henry Hathaway
I was prepared to start off this review by declaring the various reasons why Erwin Rommel has always fascinated me. Then I read a review of The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel written at the time of the films release. I also read a few comments from various people who most likely didn’t see the movie until a few years ago. What struck me about the review and the comments was how misunderstood Rommel was back then and still is in some parts to this very day. In the 1951 review the morality of the filmmakers was called into question. How dare they show a German general as a sympathetic figure, how dare they somehow highlight his going against Adolf Hitler as a positive attribute? The more recent comments centered around the fact that Rommel was a Nazi, just like every German who served under Hitler in WWII. The review and comments riled me up a little, simply for the amount of ignorance contained therein.
To get it out of the way first, the comments are frankly idiotic. As the years have gone by evidence has mounted that Rommel, much like many German soldiers, wasn’t a Nazi in any way. The most famous example of this with Rommel was an exchange he had with Hitler in 1940 where he suggested an end to the anti-Semitic ways of Germany and even went so far as to suggest that Jews be put in leadership positions. Rommel was of course quickly dismissed and Hitler went into his typical Rommel rant, “Brilliant man, but no idea of what we are really doing.” So, no, Rommel was not a Nazi, far from it, and that’s one of the reasons why as the years go by he is held in high regard and other German generals are not.
As for the movie review, it’s nothing but moralizing of the highest order. It’s an attempt to somehow state that the Germans weren’t people at all, that there couldn’t be a sympathetic figure among the lot. It is idiotic as well, it refuses to see that for all its missteps The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel was one very important thing, a war movie that wasn’t overtly patriotic. That is most likely the reason for the negative review, in 1951 it was unheard of for a WWII movie to be anything but patriotic, and for one to actually try and make a German general sympathetic was a crime of the highest order. I would hope that by this point in time we are beyond that narrow line of thinking, but as the comments that riled me up show that may not be the case and it may never be the case.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, where does that leave The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel? It leaves it as a very flawed movie that manages to be a worthy watch because of the fine acting performance of its lead and its willingness to buck the war movie trend of the time. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it isn’t a movie without merit. The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel comes across as a collection of snippets, some work, some don’t. Extended war footage of the Normandy invasion doesn’t work, because it feels incongruous to the story of Rommel. On the other hand seeing Rommel in Africa does work because it allows the viewer to understand just why Rommel has become so revered over the years.
As I said above, The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel is far from a perfect movie, it’s far from a great movie even. But it is a good movie, it features a well played performance from James Mason and offers a controversial look at one of the most iconic figures of the second world war. It’s often said that history is written by the winners, that the fate of the losers is left in the hands of their conquerors. One of the easiest ways to figure out the true strength of a historical figure is when his myth is so great that it rises above his victors. Erwin Rommel is the epitome of that, while his fellow generals are vilified and his entire army is looked down upon, he is not. Rather, Rommel has been elevated to the level of eternal greatness. The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel is a sometimes hit, sometimes miss look at the life of an iconic figure. Until a better film comes along it is the best we have, although I don’t know if anyone can play Rommel better than James Mason.