The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (Henry Hathaway, 1951) "In the somber wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry." Words of Winston Churchill, during the Second World War and his censure debate before Parliament concerning Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed "The Desert Fox," considered Germany's greatest strategist of WWII.
Churchill may have been referring only to the consequences of his words, but that he made them is extraordinary. No less extraordinary is that an American film studio would make a movie about a Nazi soldier six years after the termination of that war. Even more extraordinary that the head of that studio, Darryl Zanuck, had spent a goodly amount of time as a chronicler of the North Africa campaign, and was as patriotic and conservative as they come.
But, he loved a good story.
And he found it in Desmond Young's post-war biography of Rommel; Young was also in that campaign, but in the trenches and had a brief encounter with him, inspiring him to research the man and write the book. Young appears as himself in the film, but the narration sounds more like Michael Rennie. The script, spare as it is, is by Nunnally Johnson (who wrote for Ford, Hawks, Wilder, Aldrich in a long career), who does very well at "writing to silence"—the practice of creating dialogue for conversations that no one surviving heard. There's a lot of padding going on. A pre-credits sequence of sorts that has a British commando raid on Rommel's HQ, some Allied talk about him—the letter telling soldiers not to attribute supernatural powers to the man is word for word true—and a lot of stock-war-footage sequences that bridge incidents that round out the story and provide the big picture (some of the scenes show Eisenhower and Patton).
But Rommel, played by James Mason, is the focus, specifically his years in the Second World War, his victories despite supply problems, and an increasingly erratic strategizing by the Fuehrer-in-Chief, which ultimately led the Field-Marshall to side with the conspirators who plotted to kill Hitler in a French bunker during a battle briefing (which was detailed in Valkyrie) and led, ultimately, to his death by Nazi-assisted suicide.
That turning of purpose, showing the conscience of a soldier fighting for his country, for its advancement and survival, whether by conquest or by treason, makes a very interesting story of principals. And, along with the war footage, it is the through-line for the story, as Rommel comes to realize that in order to win the war and gain the peace, he must cut a little red tape, right at the jugular of the High Command.
Hathaway's approach is, as ever, artfully utilitarian. He doesn't try to sentimentalize Rommel (too much), and spends a lot of time in desert locations trying to simulate the North African situations. Stock-footage allows Rommel to visit installations long since obliterated. But mostly the filming is in California and Hathaway makes it work. Johnson's script is first-rate, and nicely incremental in detailing Rommel's change of heart...and target. Particularly nice is a prolonged dialogue with Field Marshall von Runstedt (Leo G. Carroll) full of irony and dripping sarcasm, but not so much that you'd mistake them for being other than loyal Germans...and chivalrous warriors of the Old School.
Great cast, too, with Mason's cool intelligence drawing in all the veteran character actors like George Macready, Cedric Hardwicke, and Everett Sloane, and up-and-comers to the screen like Jessica Tandy (as Mrs. Field Marshall) and Richard Boone as his adjutant. Luther Adler (brother of Stella) plays Adolf Hitler, and the Jewish actor had all the erratic moves and vocal cadences down. Nice bit of irony there, in a film that was chivalrously kind to the enemy.
Mason would return to the role of Rommel two years later in the Robert Wise film of The Desert Rats, starring Richard Burton.