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Film / The Desert Fox

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The Desert Fox is a 1951 Film of the Book (The Desert Fox) directed by Henry Hathaway and starring James Mason as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. These codified the 'Rommel myth' of the late German officer as an 'honourable martial genius' in the Anglosphere.

The film shows the downfall of his career between fall 1942 and October 1944, from the Second Battle of El Alamein to his involvement in the July 20 Plot, resulting in his suicide. Typically for an English-language film released just six years after World War II, the film is incredibly sympathetic to Rommel and other German officers, portraying them all as non-Nazi or even anti-Nazi professionals who are only serving the Nazis because they love and want to defend their country from Communism. The truth was a lot more complex than this.

Has a pseudo-sequel or companion film in The Desert Rats, in which Rommel (Mason again) is a lot less sympathetic.

Tropes in this film include:

  • Action Prologue: Begins with a British commando raid on Rommel's headquarters.
  • A Father to His Men: When Rommel arrives back in North Africa, he has a sneezing fit and when it's done, several officers offer up their handkerchiefs.
  • Artistic License History:
    • "The Desert Fox" is portrayed as a martial genius without much nuance given to his actual strengths and weaknesses. This is consistent with wartime Allied propaganda, which talked up Rommel's abilities to explain their repeated defeats against Rommel's smaller forces — these defeats also being the product of poor Allied understanding of tank warfare, as well as outmatched commanders such as Ritchie and Cunningham (Auchinlek generally performed a lot better against Rommel than they did).
    • In this period, a Tactical commander who was a Frontline General was just doing their job. But an Operational commander who was a Frontline General may not have been. If they were away from a command post, their ability to understand the overall situation or command their men effectively became much more difficult, as this required multiple high-power radios and a typing pool.
    • The Italians composed at least half the Axis force in North Africa at all times, and fought very bravely to great effect despite poor equipment and poor leadership. Italy's status as a Cold War ally of the USA and UK against the USSR meant that this fact had to be downplayed.
    • Colonel-Count Claus von Stauffenberg wears an eyepatch on his right eye. However, he actually lost his left eye.
    • On July 20, the day of the attempted assassination, Hitler asks where Göring is, being told that he's on his way. Reichsmarschall Göring was nowhere near the Wolf's Lair bunker that day.
  • As Himself: Desmond Young, who wrote the book the film is based on, plays himself in the scene in which he is captured in North Africa and meets Rommel, along with the scenes of him interviewing Rommel's family, and former German and British soldiers.
  • Badass Boast: Rundstedt tells Rommel that, were he not handicapped by Hitler's short-sighted orders, he would make the Allies pay.
    "I'd make them pay such a price in blood they'd wish they'd never heard of Germany. I may not be able to stop them all, but they'd know they fought an army, not a series of stationary targets."
  • Big Brother Is Watching: An SS officer makes a note of Dr. Strolin's arrival at the hospital to visit Rommel, passing this on to the Gestapo.
  • Child Soldiers: Halfway through the film, Rommel's teenage son Manfred joins the Luftwaffe.
    • In real life, Manfred (who was 15 when his father killed himself) was eager to join the Waffen-SS, but his father refused to allow him - the turnover of officers in ground-combat units was high, and the Soviets had a bad habit of not taking SS troops alive (as revenge for all that 'anti-partisan' business that the Wehrmacht and SS had been getting up to in the occupied Soviet Union). Manfred did end up manning an AA gun, and flak was indeed the Luftwaffe's business.
  • Creator Provincialism: Bayerlein says "10 o'clock last night," even though Germany uses 24-hour time, and says that they have not had a single pint of petrol, when he should have said liter as Germany has used the metric system since 1872.
  • Dated History: This film (and the book it's based on) is one of many that promotes the 'Clean Wehrmacht' and Rommel myths. While this was understandable at the time because of the very limited declassified information available in the 1950s and relying mostly on the biased testimonies of former Wehrmacht officers, it does make the film very dated.
  • Desert Warfare: The first part of the film focuses on the fighting in North Africa between the British 8th Army and Rommel's Afrika Korps, mostly through Stock Footage.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: When General Burgdorf arrives at Rommel's home, he begins giving praise from Hitler himself, noting his many years of service, until Rommel tells him to stop with the flattery and get to the point.
  • Driven to Suicide: Rommel himself, who initially opts to be tried in the People's Court but reconsiders because it could end badly for his wife and son.
  • Fat Bastard: While Göring does not appear, Hitler does make a fat joke about him.
    Hitler: Where's Göring?
    Officer: On his way now, sir.
    Hitler: Oh, well, when you're fat, you don't move so fast.
    [Officers laugh]
  • Frontline General: Rommel loves to get up close to the front, often to the annoyance of his staff.
    Colonel Fritz Bayerlein: I wouldn't mind having a commander-in-chief with a touch of cowardice about him, have him report to his headquarters every now and then.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Gerd von Rundstedt, professional soldier and Blue Blood aristocrat, has a touch of this.
    Wilhelm Keitel: How can I report such news to the Führer?
    Gerd von Rundstedt: You've reported misfortune to him before. Why should this present such a problem to you?
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Rommel's veneration as a Worthy Opponent for the Western Allies is debatable. Though he had disagreements with Hitler's tactics and brutality he remained on good terms with Hitler personally. Further, most modern historians doubt that he was actually involved in the 20 July plot. In fairness, Rommel was more chivalrous and fair-minded than pretty much any of his peers, and he did end up believing that Hitler needed to be removed from office. Though, he was against any assassination out of the belief that Hitler would become a martyr and thus make it impossible to remove his image.
    • Perhaps even more with Von Rundstedt. He and Rommel had at best a contentious personal relationship, and Rundstedt had no sympathy at all for the 20 July plotters, calling their efforts "base, bare-faced treachery." While hardly a fanatical Nazi, his frustration with Hitler was almost exclusively over the Fuhrer's poor grasp of military strategy; he never advocated Hitler's overthrow or removal from power and remained loyal to the end.
  • I Got You Covered: A commando shouts, "Cover me!" while he throws a grenade. Then he runs off allowing the man who was covering him to get shot dead.
  • Just Following Orders: Averted. Rommel refuses to simply follow orders that would see his troops slaughtered.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: A key theme of the book and film. Rommel could not be portrayed as wanting genocidal racist maniacs to successfully conquer Europe and retain the sympathy of most of the English-speaking audience, so the obvious solution was to elide the German military's 'political' activities and Rommel's own non-nationalistic motivations.
  • Old Soldier: Gerd von Rundstedt is accurately shown as this, with a comment that he is 70 now and 'too old to take part in a revolution'. Similarly, the real Gerd von Rundstedt was more of a murderously antisemitic, rabidly anti-Communist xenophobe than he was a 'true' Nazi revolutionary.
  • Pet the Dog: At the beginning of the film, Lt. Colonel Desmond Young is ordered by a German officer to approach a British artillery battery under a flag of truce and claim that they're killing POWs. Young refuses, as he is a POW and thus cannot be given any such order. Rommel quickly hears about this and puts a stop to the officer's plan. Young thanks the Field Marshal by saluting, which Rommel returns.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: While not entirely unpleasant, there were a few better places for Rommel to be than supervising the construction of coastal fortifications he knew would not halt the Allied invasion.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: After receiving confirmation from the Führer that the Afrika Korps is to stand their ground in the face of superior British firepower, Rommel rips up the message and orders Bayerlein to pull their troops out.
  • Staff of Authority: Just as in real life, Rommel gets one.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Just as the Battle of El Alamein is coming to a head, Rommel thinks that Hitler is surrounded by incompetent generals who've persuaded him to hold their ground rather than retreat. However, a confirmation causes Rommel to realize that the Führer is not the military genius he appears to be.
  • Train Escape: Dr. Strolin manages to evade a Gestapo agent who follows him onto a train, slipping off at the last minute while hiding in the rail yard.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Not as spectacular as the scene from Downfall, but Hitler's Sanity Slippage is something to behold.
    Hitler: I have designs that will change warfare for centuries to come!
    Rommel: But what about today, sir? What are we to do tomorrow morning!
  • Villain Protagonist: Rommel is a field marshal of the German Army and is the central character.
  • We Have Reserves: Defied by the Afrika Korps.
    Rommel: It's an order, Bayerlein. A military order from general headquarters. A clear, straight, stupid, criminal military order from general headquarters!
    Bayerlein: And what are you going to do? Double the insanity by obeying it? We've got the best soldiers in the German Army here. They may just be hanging on, but they're still a force! They're still fighting! If they pull out now, they can fight again tomorrow. But this? This is sheer madness. It's out of the Middle Ages! No one's said "victory or death" since people fought with bows and arrows! Why, this is an order to throw away an entire army!