The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox. 20th Century Fox 1951.
The Desert Fox. 20th Century Fox 1951.

Before watching the movie:

Every story has at least two sides. Erwin Rommel fought on the side of the Nazis, and was a major opponent in Patton, but was himself a distinguished military leader with an interesting story to tell. Though how much of it is accurately told here is debatable, as for obvious reasons this movie apparently focuses less on killing Allied soldiers and more on a plot to assassinate Hitler that Rommel may not have actually been involved with. Even less than a decade after the end of the war, that’s as close as the rest of the world wants to come to celebrating a Nazi officer, which they wouldn’t even dream of doing today.

After watching the movie:

As chronicled by Allied Lt. Col. Desmond Young, Field Marshal Rommel finds himself at odds with his Berlin superiors’ orders to hold firm to the last man in North Africa, disobeying as his tactical experience tells him to. When, despite his best efforts the African campaign is defeated, Rommel’s friend asks him if he really believes the war can be won, delicately suggesting that Hitler may need to be removed.  Rommel is adamant that that’s not necessary, and he can persuade the Fuhrer to listen to military sense, but as the war effort continues to decline, and Hitler remains more invested in his astrologers than his generals, Rommel finds himself unable to continue accepting that he should follow his government’s orders and stay out of politics.

Mason is entirely the gentleman we like to remember Rommel as. He evokes charm, conflict, and restrained pathos, and gets to show off his talents against many other fine actors, most of whom don’t get much opportunity. I expected more out of Jessica Tandy as Frau Rommel, but she in particular had the opportunity to give a moving performance but instead stayed fairly flat. Almost every German speaks with an English accent, even the ones we aren’t supposed to sympathize with. The only German I can recall offhand who definitely had a German accent was Hitler, so this was likely about more than just consistency.

The first thing I saw about the veracity of this film said Rommel actually had, at best, a favorable knowledge of the plot, but no actual involvement. I later read an article saying similarly, but Wikipedia is extensively sourced and only presents the same narrative this film and the biography it’s based on does, while those that criticize cite no sources. I certainly find it believable that the “Rommel legend” was enhanced to not only increase the standing of a man already respected by the soldiers he fought against, but also to distinguish between Hitler and the Germans that were no longer the enemy after the war. Indeed, Hitler here is presented as completely divorced from reality, wearing a suit a little oversized that subtly undercuts him even at his best (though I’m not sure that was exactly intentional), and almost no Germans shown actually agree with him, only follow his orders to varying degrees.

I was expecting, perhaps because of the way it was sold, that this film would be more like a mirror image of Patton, tracing Rommel’s rising star as a military genius before he becomes disillusioned with Berlin. That is not the case. The poster above shows an exciting war movie, but there are only a handful of stock footage tank battle scenes and perhaps even less time is given to ground-level strategy. The Desert Fox begins after he earned that title and doesn’t concern itself with demonstrating that he deserved it. Most likely, at the time they felt they didn’t need to, as his career was still a fresh memory, but when a movie advertises as being about a star strategist, it ought to include the strategizing. However, it only tracks Rommel’s fall, not his rise. A moving tragedy, but only half the story.

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