Early Film Takes on Field Marshal Rommel
By Ed Garea
Erwin Rommel was indeed an enigma. A professional soldier who served with distinction as a lieutenant in World War I, he was awarded Prussia’s highest honor, the order of Pour le Merite, for his actions in the Battles of the Isonzo, in what is now known as Slovenia.
He rose through the ranks as an instructor between the wars, writing of the essential textbooks on infantry tactics, Infanterie Greift (Infantry Attacks). Promoted first to colonel, he headed Hitler’s personal protection squad, Der Fueher-Begleit-Bataillon, and when World War II began his success in the battle of France led to his promotion to the rank of field marshal and the command of the Africa Korps. It was here he earned his greatest fame as a soldier. Nicknamed Der Wustenfuchs (The Desert Fox) for his genius in battle, he was also known for his humane treatment of POWs and his refusal to kill commandos and Jewish soldiers, and civilians. Illness forced him from Africa before Gen. Bernard Montgomery could and he was assigned to the defense of France.
Rommel never joined the Nazi Party and was later accused in the conspiracy to kill Hitler in 1944. Because of his fame, Rommel was given the choice of suicide by poison. It was announced that he died of wounds sustained from a British attack on his car and was buried with highest state “honors.”
We encounter the character of Field Marshal Rommel in film three times from 1943 to 1953, and as this article is about how he was portrayed, we will concern ourselves mainly with that.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (Paramount, 1943): An early effort by director Billy Wilder (only his second stab at directing an American film), this is a wartime thriller starring Franchot Tone as a British soldier left behind when the Germans advanced past the British lines. Hiding at a hotel he discovers it is the headquarters for Field Marshall Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim), he must play an elaborate cat-and-mouse game to discover where Rommel has buried vital war supplies for his drive to Cairo.
Although the hotel’s proprietor (Akim Tamaroff) is allowing Bramble to pose as a decreased barkeeper, the tension in the film comes from the character of the chambermaid, Mouche (Anne Baxter), whose prime interest is getting her brother released from a German POW camp. Will she turn Bramble in? Will Bramble learn the hiding places of Rommel’s materiel? Thus lays the plot for the twists and turns of the movie. Von Stroheim plays Rommel as a haughty, menacing Prussian, which was the popular perception of the Field Marshal at the time. New York Times film critic Bosely Crowther, while giving the film a mixed review, noted that Von Stroheim is miles ahead of his competitors in playing huns: “ . . . whenever he appears in this picture . . . he gives you the creeps and the shivers.” (Review of May 27, 1943). In a little note of trivia, Wilder tried to get Cary Grant for the starring role, but without success. Although Tone was excellent in the film, Grant, however is without peer, and we can only imagine what the film would have been like if he had taken Wilder up on his offer.
THE DESERT FOX (20th Century Fox, 1951): Cut to the Postwar ‘50s and we now get a chance to glimpse a three-dimensional Erwin Rommel, thanks in large part to a biography of him by ex-British prisoner of war, Desmond Young. It’s an intelligent and sympathetic look at the life of the famed German Field Marshal from his days in the Afrika Korps to his role in building Fortress Europe to his eventual disillusionment with Hitler and his role in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944.
It’s a tour de force for James Mason, who we come to see as Rommel himself, as he delivers a flawless performance. Mason is ably supported by the inimitable Leo G. Carroll as Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the German patriot Dr. Karl Strolin, who draws Rommel into the conspiracy to kill Hitler. As Frau Lucie Rommel, Jessica Tandy is not given much to do, but her performance is such that we remember her long after the film itself has ended. Even if war movies are not your cup of soup, you will like this one at any rate because of the intelligent script, the flawless performances and the firm hand of director Henry Hathaway. TCM is showing this film at 3:15 pm EST on July 28.
THE DESERT RATS (20th Century Fox, 1953): 20th Century Fox took quite a number of hits from critics and ex-servicemen for their earlier sympathetic portrayal of Rommel, and so it was decided to again retain Mason as The Field Marshal for this story of how Australian and Kiwi soldiers held out against the might of Rommel and the Africa Korps at the Libyan port of Tobruk during the early days of Rommel’s Africa campaign.
It’s an enjoyable movie, centered on the character of Major “Tammy” McRoberts (Richard Burton) and his relationship with his troops, especially Sgt. “Blue” Smith (Chips Rafferty), his former teacher in England who later emigrated to Australia and has become a dissolute drunk. McRoberts saves him from a court-martial and Smith becomes one of the Major’s most ardent troops. Burton is a wonder to watch, and Rafferty practically steals the movie with his portrayal of Sgt. Smith’s redemption.
Rommel’s part in the film comes when McRoberts, wounded and captured, is receiving medical attention with Rommel entering for treatment of a wounded shoulder. It’s little more than a cameo, but Mason manages to make Rommel’s character harder and more villainous than in The Desert Fox and the dialogue between them is priceless. Major goofs by the producers have the Germans using Thompson submachine guns instead of MP 40 burp guns, which were standard issue in the Wehrmacht, and the Germans also using the Vickers water-cooled machine gun instead of the air-cooled German standard MG34. The story, though, is impeccable. Trivia note: The photo of McRoberts’ wife is actually that of actress Sybil Richards, who was married to Burton at the time.