This movie is "Approved." Not by me. By someone else. He's probably dead. Ooooh...dark.
DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway
Boy, oh boy. I have a really bad case of "I Don't Want to Write This." I'm not even going to pretend that it sounds like a disease because I don't want to write this. I didn't even want to watch it past the first ten minutes. I'm going to get ahead of you on this one. The movie isn't horrible. It's considered a classic and that's fine. It's just that this movie was something I powered through because it was not up my alley and now I feel responsible to write a lot on it. Yay for me, I guess?
The problem with The Desert Fox is that it is some deep-end-of-the-ocean stuff. There is no transition into Rommel's life. This is for military war buffs and NO ONE ELSE! I get it. Everyone should be into history and all of that and I'm ashamed that I'm not more into it. But this is a military movie for military strategists and golly, that does not meet me. I like war movies. Okay, I like some war movies, but those are the ones that have a human interest piece in them. What makes this movie somewhat of a crime in my mind is that Rommel's story is actually pretty interesting and I could see a movie being fascinating about him. But rather than present a through line in the story, examining Rommel's change throughout a single narrative, the movie jumps around to major moments in his campaigns and then looks at his emotional state at the moment.
For those that don't know, and I don't really find it a spoiler when talking about major moments in history, Rommel was an extremely talented field marshal for the Nazis. (Oh? You didn't know? The protagonist of this movie is a Nazi. Yup.) The guy killed hundreds of Allied forces (again, this is something that he is being admired for) under his tenure as commander or whatnot. But the emotional core of this film is the fact that he sees that Hitler is slipping and losing his mind and control of the war, so he engages in some light treason until his eventual death. If you don't know this going into the movie, I can see how this movie might be even more frustrating than what I dealt with and my mediocre reception to the movie. i know that this format works because I really enjoyed Valkyrie. The "Operation: Valkyrie" story even makes a cameo in The Desert Fox and I wanted to watch more of that. Yeah, it's weird that all these military nerds love Rommel so much considering that he slaughtered so many good people, but it is even weirder that we couldn't spend more time with Rommel as a human being. That's the story that is clearly being told. But (and this is where the movie makes me mad) every time we had some emotional tie to the character, the film cuts to a narrator and stock footage of the war going on. So months and years pass between every scene and the actual Rommel arc might only be 45 minutes long. A good portion of the movie is devoted to letting the audience know how good Rommel is as a soldier and strategist. I believed that Rommel was really good at killing good guys from the opening narration / crawl. I didn't need constant reminders that he was good at it. It's that part of Jurassic Park where they're on the tour and they can't see the unfertilized egg. I, too, wanted to break the restraints and focus on how Rommel was taking all of this information.
On top of everything, considering that Rommel was such a bigwig during the war, James Mason's Rommel is wildly passive in his own storyline. Most of the movie has people coming to him and telling him why he should rebel against Hitler and his subsequent reactions. This is probably how it happened. This movie is too military nerdy to heed the needs of a functional narrative and is slavish to the facts of history. But that doesn't make for good storytelling. He makes few choices and the only actual tension that comes from Rommel's treason is the opening scene and they Valkyrie attempt, which has nothing to actually do with Rommel. Rommel had a life. He had a wife and a kid (kids?). The filmmakers have loving interactions with these characters and we knew that he was quite close to his family, but what about all of the deliberation about the company he keeps. What about half-confessions and moral decision making? He rather simply is a passenger to all of the events around him, so who cares?
I watch a lot of British things. I'm normally of the camp that Brits don't have to do other accents when playing other characters. (Captain Jean-Luc Picard, I'm looking at you. The universal translator shouldn't make you sound British.) But the entire movie has Brits as Nazis and I had to guess that this was just to make the evil guys that we just beat in the war sound like our friends. (So why are British people always bad guys? Do you see the conundrum we've created?) James Mason is very noble and I think that's the only thing that really made him fill in for Rommel. He reacts well, but he also carries himself with a bit of British aristocracy for the movie to right true. The only German character who has a German accent is Hitler, but that's because he'd sound hilarious as a Brit. Also, everyone's got a real mean Hitler impression.
I don't know. I really like the idea of the movie that's only for nerds. But this movie just seemed blind to the fact that this movie wasn't to be for everyone. It assumed that everyone would be riveted by the details of Rommel's strategies and, let me tell you, it is kind of boring. Anyway, i would love to see a story about Rommel, despite his constant slaughter of the good guys. I just want to see it from a stronger narrative perspective.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.