This film caught my eye as I scrolled through the recommendations on the Netflix website. I had recently given Patton a five-star rating, and a gaggle of World War II movies began making appearances on my list. Irwin Rommel is a mysterious figure in Patton, a wily military opponent who is rarely seen in person, but whose most memorable “appearance” in the film is when George C. Scott (as George Patton) shouts, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” I was eager to find out more about him, particularly through a cinematic psychological prism similar to Patton‘s.
The Desert Fox delivered, and it didn’t. The Henry Hathaway-directed film sets Rommel up as a man of mystery; he walks in and out of the beginning of the picture without introduction, quiet and brooding. When James Mason as Rommel does finally speak, he exudes the air of a philosopher. Such is the stature of the man, as we have come to accept it from a distance. The first third of the film establishes Rommel’s reputation as a brilliant military tactician without delving very deeply into his specific strategies. I found this to be a weakness. To make matters worse, the few battle scenes seem to be heavily supplemented by stock footage. Perhaps this is symptomatic of post-War Hollywood and budgetary contraints, but it adds an air of unbelievability to the historical drama.
The last section of The Desert Fox concerns itself with a plot to assasinate Adolf Hitler and Rommel’s somewhat reluctant participation in it. He takes some convincing, being the loyal military officer and cheerleader for Hitler, who has cultivated a strong reputation that he’d prefer not to tarnish. Eventually he is coerced by the family doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) into peripherally taking part in the plan, and the inevitable failure of the plan and tragic denouement of the main characters play out over the last thirty minutes of the film. The film becomes a minor potboiler at this point, rather than a resonant drama of virtue and redemption, toward which it had seemed to aspire. Nonetheless, Mason’s noble portrayal maintains consistency throughout the duration of the picture.