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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Rommel Rolls Over a 50's Sandbar

Fox Scores B.O. Blitzkrieg With The Desert Fox (1951)

James Mason among first in a 50's line of "Good Germans" who opposed Hitler and sought end to Teutonic war-making. He's Field Marshal Rommel, an opponent many had taken to heart almost despite themselves. The fact he joined the conspiracy to off Hitler, and at eventual cost of his life, made Rommel palatable as protagonist, a popular US-published bio referring to him as a "Fabulous Legend" on cover art. James Mason was casting choice after Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark had been sifted through, and he's excellent. The Desert Fox ended up a significant hit for 20th, second only to David and Bathsheba for 1951 profits. Henry Hathaway directs with customarily firm hand; his linkage with Zanuck fed a host of good product. It needs pointing out that best work from admired helmsmen was often for DFZ, his story sense and editing skill the salvation for many a project.

The Desert Fox is less stuck in sand than back in Berlin, where plotters tempt Rommel/Mason into effort at bombing Hitler unawares (the drama was replayed of late with Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, a not-bad go at the true event). It had but lately been revealed how Rommel actually died, and of his part in the Hitler plot, so The Desert Fox got benefit of fresh revelation and now-it-can-be-told dynamic. For $1.4 million spent on the negative, it would return $4.1 million in world rentals. No wonder Fox went forward with follow-up The Desert Rats, wherein James Mason reprised his Rommel. There was still plenty to say of the late war in the 50's, The Desert Fox later adjudged worthy of placement with other Fox A's on a first NBC season of Saturday Night At The Movies in 1961-62. It has played among Amazon Prime offerings in HD, and is available on DVD from Fox.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Is that Jackie Coogan with the cigarette in his mouth? Whomever, that would never get used today. Terrific shot. Total little tough guy.

7:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It's Jackie.

7:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer expands on the Rommel story:

Erwin Rommel had good press almost from the beginning. Part of it was pragmatic. After his startling victories in North Africa over superior British forces, it was much more palatable to present him as an officer of the old order rather than of the new Nazi one. The irony, of course, was that just a generation before, members of the old order were portrayed as "Huns," who raped nurses and cut off the hands of children. Little wonder, then, that when Rommel made his initial appearance on the screen, it was in the person of Erich von Stroheim, the "Man You Love to Hate" of that earlier generation.

The other part, however, was Rommel's own personal qualities. He was highly admired on both sides for his battlefield skill and inspirational leadership, but also for his charisma and chivalry. The courtesies he showed captured British officers were not unappreciated. In a way, he was almost a throwback to the medieval knight in personality, yet a master of modern warfare. The officer of the Allies who compared most closely to him was America's George S. Patton, though Patton, an irascible man, did not enjoy the widespread popularity of Rommel.

There is some controversy as to the role Rommel played in the assassination plot against Hitler. The consensus is that he had become disillusioned with the Fuhrer but was against assassinating him. Rather, he wanted him removed and imprisoned. Rommel would then head a government that would seek peace with the Allies. As to the last, Hitler himself was not unmindful of the desirability of peace. When his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, advised on such a course of action on August 30, 1944, Hitler replied the next day that it was on his mind, but that he was not so naïve as to think that the Allies would entertain the prospects of peace when they had the upper hand on the battlefield. Undoubtedly, a Rommel government would have realized the same thing, just as the Suzuki government in Japan did when it made peace overtures in June of the following year.

Some historians, however, believe that Rommel was a loyal military commander, though ambivalent about the manner in which the war was being conducted. At most he was on the periphery of the plot. An officer on trial himself alleged that he had passed on to Rommel the possibility of an attempt on Hitler's life, but Rommel had done nothing with the information.

Whatever Rommel's real involvement, his willingness to allow the plot to proceed was enough to mark him as a traitor. Hitler told him that if he considered himself innocent, he should come to Berlin and make his case, otherwise he should choose the course of honor befitting a Prussian officer. When Rommel declined either alternative, two officers were sent to him with an ultimatum: either he would face public trial before the People's Court or he would be allowed to commit suicide. If he chose the latter, no repercussions would befall his wife and child. Rommel chose suicide. When Hitler was informed that Rommel had "succumbed to his wounds"--Rommel had been seriously wounded in France during a strafing attack by American fighters--he merely remarked, "Another of the old order has fallen." Which was indeed the case.

I first saw "The Desert Fox" as a boy when it was telecast on NBC's "Saturday Night at the Movies," and was most impressed by the gallantry of the Rommel character. James Mason had a particular ability to suggest an underlying melancholy, and it was well employed in this film, in its depiction of a man of good intent finding himself in the service of an unworthy cause, but unable to separate his sense of duty and honor from the cause which employed him. Shakespeare's tragedies turned upon a man of ability being betrayed by flaw or failing. Certainly the Rommel of "The Desert Fox" would have been a man for Shakespeare.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Dan Mercer, as someone probably once said somewhere, you have crystallized my thoughts perfectly.

5:02 PM  

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