The Desert Fox (1951) Biopic on Field Marshal Rommel’s Final Years

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel, is based on the biography of Rommel by Desmond Young. The movie opens with British commandos trying to assassinate Rommel in 1941 and then forwards to 1943 showing Rommel at El Alamein.  Rommel, who is of poor health, is just back on the front line and faces a pretty desperate situation. The German troops are far outnumbered and any reasonable commander would give the order to withdraw. Not so Hitler whose consultants all encourage him to give orders to either win or die. For the first time, the movie tells us, Rommel starts to doubt the Führer’s sanity. It will not be the last time. On the very contrary. The movie tries to show a Rommel who goes from doubt to open criticism and even knows the group around von Stauffenberg will attempt to assassinate Hitler. While not tied to the assassination he’s still found guilty of treason and given a chance to either get a fake trial or to commit suicide in order to assure the future of his wife and son.

I must admit I expected this movie to be far better than it was. The story is interesting, of course, but the way this was filmed was not much better than a B-movie. Mason is good, I wouldn’t say he’s great but he’s good. There is just one problem. He doesn’t look like Rommel. What didn’t work is that most of the movie is either composed of real footage or scenes filmed in the studio which makes the whole movie look like a theater play broken up by documentary material.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know Rommel. Given that the title of the movie is The Desert Fox and not “Rommel’s Downfall” or some such thing, I expected that we will learn why Rommel was considered to be such a great general. Although he was their enemy, the Allies admired and feared him. The movie only shows us a Rommel who is very realistic, who knows when a battle can’t be won, who makes great suggestions, but isn’t heard. The movie also fals in showing Rommels’ humanity. It seems he was never accused of war crimes. He refused to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and prisoners.

The best part is that the movie shows how Rommel first doubts the people who consult Hitler before he doubts the man himself. Once he’s understood that his Führer is nothing but a maniac, he speaks his mind openly and confronts him.

I watched the movie Patton two years ago and thought it was outstanding. If anyone knows of a biopic of Rommel which is equally good, please let me know.

I didn’t mind watching The Desert Fox, but it’s certainly not the ultimate movie on Rommel.

Rommel’s son Manfred died last month. It’s interesting to know that he formed a friendship with Patton’s and Montgomer’y sons.

Here’s one of the best scenes in which Rommel confronts Hitler

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The Blue Max (1966) Is it the Best WWI Air Combat Movie?

Some people argue that The Blue Max is the best WWI air combat movie there is. What is certainly interesting is that we see a movie from a German point of view. What is also quite obvious is the fact that it is better than The Flyboys. But does this really make it the best WWI air combat movie?

The Blue Max is an interesting movie because it is more than just an air combat movie. It provides a fascinating character study and shows us what can become of a talented but overambitious person like the main character Bruno Stachel (George Peppard).

At the beginning of the movie Stachel is an infantry man but he gets promoted and becomes a pilot. This is actually an interesting bit and I was wondering how often this really happened in reality. Usually the fighter pilots were hardly aware of what was going on in the trenches. Their idea of war was very often equal to an elegant if deadly pastime. Not unlike hunting only including the two sides of being the hunter and the hunted at the same time.

Pilots during WWI were mostly aristocrats like the famous Baron von Richthofen aka The Red Baron (who can also be seen in a short sequence). From day one the other pilots let Stachel feel that he isn’t one of them. What he doesn’t have in social status he tries to make up for in ambition. It is his one and only goal to earn the medal called the Blue Max that is awarded only after 20 kills. He believes this will earn him the respect of the other pilots.

Stachel is absolutely not a nice guy. He is as unlikable as can be but still there is a certain tragedy in his fate as he unfortunately falls in love with the wrong woman (Ursula Andress), yes, the first Bond Girl).

The way he tries to achieve his goal, The Blue Max, is totally reckless and more than once he endangers himself and his comrades alike.

The movie got a lot of praise for the story which is quite interesting however, I think, it would have benefitted if it hadn’t been that long. Some shortening would have been really good.

What the movie is truly famous for, and for good reasons, is the aviation part. The air combat scenes are very well filmed. Without CGI they achieved to show quite something.

I was not totally convinced by George Peppard. I think the movie would have been better with another lead. On the other hand I thought that Ursula Andress wasn’t all that bad and James Mason was decidedly very good.

I have no idea how I would rate this but I guess 4/5 should do it justice. For the aviation and air combat parts it would deserve 5 points, for the length and the main actor only 3.5.

Even though The Battle of Britain is not a WWI movie, it is the movie The Blue Max has been compared to most often. Look at it any which way you want and you will have to admit that The Battle of Britain is the better movie.

Still it is one of the best WWI air combat movies.

Should you be interested here’s my Favourite Air Combat Movies List.

Candlelight in Algeria (1944) A Forgotten British War Time Classic

Candlelight In Algeria is one of the forgotten classics from the Golden Age of British Cinema. Just like Tomorrow We Live or First of the Few.

Candlelight in Algeria is a short, fun movie, mixing facts and fiction. James Mason plays a British spy who is chased by the Germans and helped by a very feisty American girl. They form a very funny duo and flavour this spy story with elements of the screwball comedy. She is an endearing heroine, really, and in stark contrast to the British spy. She never reacts the way he would expect a woman to react. She is courageous and foolhardy at the same time and pretty much living every moment to the fullest. I don’t think she cares too much about politics. She gets involved with Mason’s character because she loves adventures.

The location, Algeria, makes for some interesting decor, the black and white works well but don’t expect a Casablanca like movie. It is totally different. You won’t find heartache, sorrow, betrayal or an alcoholic brooding silently.

The protagonists meet in Algiers, when the agent Alan Thurston (James Mason) hides in the house of friends of Susan Foster (Carla Lehmann). He is looking for a camera which contains photos that will reveal the exact location where the Allies rehearse the invasion of North Africa. Susan is fascinated by Mason and probably also fancies him from the start and spontaneously decides to help him. The unlikely couple will try to get the camera back and in doing so are constantly  hunted by Dr. Muller, an evil Nazi sympathiser. Dangerous and comical moments alternate.

Maybe it isn’t the greatest achievement of British cinema history but it is very likable and I often enjoy the contrasting of British and American characters in movies of the 40s. I found it particularly fascinating as I had just watched Patton before that begins at the very same moment in history which is at the heart of Candlelight in Algeria. This movie is occasionally also mentioned in lists of forgotten noir movies.

Cross of Iron aka Steiner – Das eiserne Kreuz (1977) or Showdown on the Eastern Front

…Peckinpah successfully stripped the combat of the patriotic heroism and glory that usually accrue to it in war films (Stephen Prince quoted in Under Fire p. 52)

Sam Peckinpah´s only war movie, Cross of Iron, is a UK/German co-production and probably one of the best war movies you can possibly see. It is based loosely on the battle of Krymskaya that took place during the German retreat in 1943. The original source is Willi Heinrich´s Das geduldige Fleisch aka The Willing Flesh. Heinrich fought himself on the Eastern Front. It contains quite a lot of  graphic infantry combat scenes. Steiner is one of my top favourite characters, right after Sgt. Elias, however much more cynical but a good man at heart. I have read reviews of this movie that were not favourable and I admit, it could be misunderstood. If you do not pay very close attention and take into account the opening and final credits, you might simply not see the profundity of the anti-war statement.

Cross of Iron opens on a cheerful children´s tune Hänschen Klein ging allein, in die weite Welt hinein, Stock und Hut, stehn ihm gut… While we hear this tune we see black and white footage of grim content interspersed with pictures and stills of Hitler Youth to show us the slow ideological infiltration of the German youth.

The movie tells us a story from the point of view of a German platoon on the Eastern Front in 1943. At the heart of the story is the antagonism between Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn) a much admired veteran who has already earned two Crosses of Iron and Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) an arrogant, conceited Prussian officer whose only goal is to be awarded such a cross. When tensions intensify Stransky does not inform Steiner and his platoon of their retreat and the men are left stranded behind enemy lines. They barely make it back and Stransky let´s his men open fire on them. We get to see a scene that resembles many a Western showdown.

The final credits are quite different from the opening ones. The statement  clearly is: war is pure madness. We hear a hysterically laughing Steiner, the annoying children´s song of the beginning and see black and white photos. Those photos are interesting, the first shows the execution of young Soviet partisans (see more info in B Hellqvists comment below) followed by the pictures of children in different wars, Vietnam, somewhere in Africa…

This movie wouldn’t be the controversial movie it is if there were not other extremely important elements that have not so much to do with the core story. Steiner has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger) after being wounded. This scene, that has been criticized, is meant to emphasize his cynicism and, I believe, should be seen paired with the other female roles in this movie, namely the female Russian soldiers Steiner´s troop encounters on the retreat. It is rare that you see female soldiers in war movies unless they are Russian. Running out of men and considering women – due to their assumed patience – to be better snipers Russia recruited a lot of women towards the end of the war. There are a few Russian movies dedicated solely to female soldiers (I will review them in due time). But let’s get back to Cross of Iron. The encounter of those female soldiers and Steiner´s men gives us one of the most graphic scenes I have ever seen in a war movie. Not for the fainthearted.

All in all, apart from the central story of hatred between two men from different social classes, the movie is complex and composite. It certainly gains by being watched twice. The actors are all very good. James Coburn is fantastic.  Maximilian Schell is very good and so are James Mason, David Warner and Senta Berger.

What I liked a lot is how daring Cross of Iron is. It does not shy away from touching topics that are normally left out, it goes beyond what we are used to see and stays in your mind long after you watched it.

I must admit that personally and for reasons that elude me, I was always extremely fascinated by the tales of the Eastern front. This dates back to my childhood when I found a book in my grandmother´s library called “Letters home from Stalingrad” (it is as good as Letters home from Vietnam and not less tragic). Thinking that without the British and the Americans the outcome of the war between these two countries would have determined all of Europe´s fate gives me the creeps…

“What will we do when we have lost the war?”

“Prepare for the next one.” (Cross of Iron)

Cross of Iron is among my Top 20, that is for sure.