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The Desert Fox

A Cliffs Notes adaptation of Desmond Young's post-WWII biography depicting the final days of the legendarily elusive German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Henry Hathaway's The Desert Fox (1951) is a cut above the average war films from its day thanks to a strong lead performance from James Mason and a lack of egregious solemnity. Clocking in at a brief 88 minutes — though padded out somewhat shamelessly by the era's standard reliance on stock footage masquerading as battle sequences to circumvent budgetary limitations — the film begins with a daring 1941 British commando raid aimed at killing the mythic German general, whose battlefield brilliance was both confounding and deadly. A hauntingly evocative sequence, moodily lit by the top-notch B&W cinematographer Norbert Brodine (responsible for the gritty noir look of Hathaway's classic Kiss of Death), the endeavor carries the ominous hint of doom as the soldiers stalk through an almost otherworldly patch of bare trees before mounting their assault on the German Afrika Corps headquarters. The foreshadowing, of course, proves to be dead on: The Brits' assassination attempt falls short, leaving Rommel to rout their forces another day. From there, the film shifts gears into straightforward biopic mode, skipping forward a couple of years to Rommel's return to the North African theater after an extended sick leave, where he has been charged with readying the undersupplied and demoralized German forces for a crucial defense of their positions at El Alamein. Despite his reputation as a master tactician, Rommel and his troops didn't have a chance against the overwhelming British onslaught. Throw in air support from the Americans, along with meddling from Berlin, and Rommel soon finds himself subjected to a swift and ignominious defeat. Suffering from extreme exhaustion, the field marshal once again returns to Germany for convalescence, but soon he finds himself serving under General Gerd von Runstedt (Leo G. Carroll) in France, where they must prepare for the looming Allied invasion. As in North Africa, Rommel finds his strategic expertise undermined by the Nazi high command. Frustrated with being micromanaged by a madman, particularly as it endangers the lives of his men, he then clandestinely joins ranks with a burgeoning junta looking to unseat Hitler and his cronies. History, of course, tells us how this will turn out. Though hardly memorable, The Desert Fox is nevertheless an entertaining Hollywood war movie relic for those fond of the genre. Aside from Mason's steady work as an idealized incarnation of Rommel (though he presided over no Nazi atrocities, his role as an undeniably useful implement for the Third Reich certainly prolonged the conflict at great human cost), and its intermittently stylish look, the film is probably most notable for managing a portrayal of Hitler that doesn't provoke gales of unintentional laughter (Der Führer is played here by Luther Adler, the brother of legendary "Method" acting instructor Stella), which is to say one only flashes on the brilliant memory of Dick Shawn once or twice. Jessica Tandy also appears as Rommel's devoted wife, Lucie. The script was by Nunnally Johnson. Fox presents The Desert Fox in its original full-screen ratio (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include both the English- and Spanish-language trailers and a preview for the Fox War Classics series. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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