James Mason in Henry Hathaway’s “The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel” (1951)

“The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel”

In November 1941 a British commando unit deploys from a submarine off the North African coast. Its mission is to raid the headquarters ofField Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel (James Mason) and assassinate the “Desert Fox”. There are heavy casualties on both sides, but Rommel is not among them. He is recovering from nasal diphtheria in a hospital in Germany.

A phone call from Adolf Hitler (Luther Adler) promptly returns him to his Afrika Korps command, with the British Eighth Army under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Trevor Ward) poised to counterattack the Axis forces in the Second Battle of El Alamein. Without adequate supplies, weapons, fuel, or men, Rommel is ordered by Hitler to hold fast and fight to the last man. He questions the outrageous directive, initially attributing it to the “clowns“ surrounding Hitler in Berlin, and demands it be re-transmitted again. Receiving the same message, he crumples it with the intention of disregarding the command.

Rommel again falls ill and is returned to Germany, where he is hospitalized. An old family friend, Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), Lord Mayor of Stuttgart, visits him to request he join a group of dissidents plotting to overthrow Hitler. Rommel strongly resists.

After his recuperation, Rommel is transferred to Western Europe, where he is placed in charge of completing the Atlantic Wall. After inspection, he realizes its defenses are inadequate to protect against an Allied invasion. He and his superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll), are handicapped by Hitler’s astrology-based belief that the real invasion will come at Calais. As a result, the D-Day landings at Normandy are successful, and a broad beachhead is secured. Hitler then compounds his error by refusing to release troops and tanks desperately needed to halt the Allies, and again forbids an orderly retreat to set up a strong defense in depth.

Rommel then risks broaching the topic of a conspiracy against Hitler with von Rundstedt. The older man refuses to commit, but wishes Rommel success with the plot, indicating he expects Rommel to be named his successor within 24 hours.

Immediately after, Rommel is seriously injured when his staff car is strafed by an Allied plane. Once again he spends an extended recuperation at home.

On July 20 Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) plants a bomb at Hitler’s feet during a meeting of the general staff at the Wolf’s Lair. It detonates with severe casualties, but Hitler survives. Thousands suspected of complicity in the attack are tracked down and executed.

An official silence surrounds Rommel, but evidence of his secret participation is gathered. Soon after, General Wilhelm Burgdorf is sent by Hitler to charge Rommel with treason, instructed to offer the beloved national hero a choice between sure conviction, destruction of his reputation, and death by garrote, or an immediate but painless suicide (with his passing attributed to cumulative war wounds), along with the promise that his wife and son will be well looked after. The veiled threat to their welfare should Rommel insist on a public trial, cinches his decision.

He bids a stoic farewell to his wife, who promises to explain the choice to their son. Rommel then climbs into a staff car to meet his fate en route to Berlin.

A voiceover of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Jack Moyles) reciting a speech delivered to the House of Commons in praise of Rommel for his chivalry in battle, tactical genius, and courageous stance against Hitler leads to the credits.

A 1951 American biographical war film directed by Henry Hathaway, produced by Nunnally Johnson, screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the book Rommel: The Desert Fox by Brigadier Desmond Young (who served in the British Indian Army in North Africa), cinematography by Norbert Brodine, starring James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy, Everett Sloane, Leo G. Carroll, George Macready, Richard Boone, Eduard Franz, Desmond Young, and Luther Adler, who portrayed Adolf Hitler, was Jewish.

Finnish president and Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s personal Mercedes-Benz 770, a gift received from Adolf Hitler, was used as a prop car in the film.

This World War II film utilized real black-and-white archival combat footage from the British documentary” Desert Victory” (1943). The black and white format allows large sections of actual documentary war action footage and the like throughout the film.

Rommel’s widow, Lucie Marie Rommel (played by Jessica Tandy), acted as a technical consultant and adviser. She lent the production some of her husband’s personal artifacts and liaised with Nunnally Johnson. She later also acted as a military consultant on “The Longest Day” (1962), another 20th Century-Fox production.

Rommel opposed the idea of attempting to assassinate Hitler. He believed it would make the Commander-in-Chief a martyr, and also cause a civil war in Germany as the SS would still be in power.
Credit to : Donald P. Borchers

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