Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: Nunnally Johnson; based on Rommel: The Desert Fox by Desmond Young
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Cinematographer: Norbert Brodine
by Jon Cvack
This year I’ve noticed myself coming across James Mason films more and more, starting with A Star is Born (1958), then to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), then to Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and now to The Desert Fox. I had first heard of the film when I was assembling a list of great WWII films, and figured this sounded pretty good. Although the comparisons are clear, James Mason would never achieve the fame of Cary Grant, and his body of work reflects such; in that he with the exception of Lolita (1955) and North by Northwest (1959), he hasn’t really been in all that many classic popular films.
The story involves a first address by Lt.-Colonel Desmond Young, who plays himself, describing how he’s going to try and understand the man who was Rommel, who served as one of the more foremost threats to civilization. We flashback to North Africa circa 1942, where Rommel fails to counter Montgomery’s attack and was forced to retreat, leaving Rommel less certain of Nazi Germany’s future.
Back home, he’s approached by an old friend , Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), who asks Rommel if he wants to join their anti-Hitler group. Rommel refuses and is later assigned to the Atlantic Wall, where Operation D-Day shortly follows. Rommel implores Hitler to reinforce certain positions, which Hitler denies, leaving the despondent Rommel to then join the anti-Hitler group. We then get to see the Valkyrie July 20, 1944 assassination plot, which fails, leaving Hitler hyper paranoid, soon implicating Rommel.
Writing this out and reading this story I first have to say that this is an amazing story that I never knew about and highly recommend checking out. This is a remake waiting to be told, as it examines a complex character torn between loyalty to country versus all mankind. Unfortunately, this film falls far short of catching that. I suppose it’s impressive for even attempting to examine the man, and made only six years after WWII I wonder what the American military would’ve thought of it. Would they despise the man for butchering their brothers, respect his vast military intelligence, or celebrate the secret?
One of the biggest problems is that James Mason maintains his British accent, along with most of the Nazi soldiers. While it left wondering when exactly the movies decided to add the accent, I just couldn’t believe the world because of it. Would it be more offensive for Rommel to have someone attempt his accent, or have Mason preserve his own? I would take the accent as I was immediately pulled out of the film every time he spoke.
There’s also a scene with Hitler, which while interesting for historical purposes (this was one of the first dramatic Hitler performances), was way too goofy to work.
It was another film that used actual war footage to intercut the timelines, and while it was kind of justified given Young’s narration, it made the narrative scenes look cheap as a result.
I’ve got a few more decent James Mason films to get to and I’m excited to see what else the man can do, but it all reminds me of his connection to A Star is Born; a man who was at the top and fell. In some ways Rommel shows the same trajectory, as though anticipating where Mason would head.
BELOW: One of - if not the first - dramatic portrayal of Hitler, which somehow feels comedic and shallow
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