When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 May (3.35 pm)
Desert Fox is an almost staggeringly brave film, considering it told the story of a World War II German officer sympathetically at a time when Nazis were routinely depicted as monsters. This is no ordinary Nazi, however; it’s the tale of Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel, known as the Desert Fox for his exploits in the North African theatre of war. The film depicts his successes against mounting odds and his gradual disillusionment in the German high command.
Rommel is played by James Mason, himself no stranger to difficult, edgy roles. Glossing over the Fox’s reputation for his harshness to subordinates and gambling with his men, he comes across as a respected and brilliant field commander, pragmatic and charismatic. His story becomes the subject of Desmond Young, playing himself as a captured allied soldier who briefly met Rommel and, after the war, wrote his biography. Young questions why Rommel died in 1944, and after discussions with whoever would talk to him pieced together the Marshal’s role in an assassination attempt on Hitler.
Mason plays his character’s growing dissatisfaction with the Führer to marvellous effect. At the beginning, as his command in North Africa becomes a fight he can’t win, he’s bewildered by an order from Hitler demanding ‘Victory or Death’. By the time he’s leading troops in France against a mounting tide of Allied troops, the same order comes and he realises ‘the Bohemian Corporal’ is now a liability.
Desert Fox’s attempts at realism end with Luther Adler’s portrayal of Hitler, where it’s made clear he’s a bellowing, pontificating madman. Perhaps the very suggestion the Führer could be put on screen as a rational human being who ordered the lives of willing millions was a step too far. Strangely, whilst the other actors playing Germans speak with English accents, Adler gives Hitler’s voice the kind of comic German twang that wouldn’t look out of place on Allo Allo.
Another criticism of the film is that it’s just too short. Much of Rommel’s success in North Africa is dealt with via a mixture of archive footage and Michael Rennie’s narration, which ensures the episodes we get show him always on the losing side. Everyone who discusses Rommel runs over his abilities, yet thanks to the lack of desert foxcraft we have to accept this on reputation alone. To be fair to Mason, he acts with restrained dignity, playing the Field Marshall as an assiduous figure who possesses consideration for his soldiers, very much a good man who has the misfortune of batting for the wrong side.
Desert Fox was received lukewarmly, whilst veterans of North Africa criticised its sensitive depiction of their old nemesis. In response, when 20th Century Fox released The Desert Rats two years later, Mason appeared once again as the Field Marshal, only this time playing a much nastier piece of work.
Rommel, Desert Fox: ***