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I’ve said before that I grew up at least in part on war movies, so when I encounter one that I haven’t seen before I get a little excited. More than that, for many years, a lot of my pleasure reading was history of World War II, and of that war, I was the most interested in the North African campaign. That means that The Desert Rats hits on all of my trigger points. It’s a war movie I hadn’t seen before, it’s a World War II movie, and it focuses on the siege of Tobruk and at least in part on the Afrika Korps. Better, it even has James Mason reprising his role as Irwin Rommel that he played two years previous in The Desert Fox.
So I’m sorry to report that The Desert Rats did not live up to my expectations. This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not a great one. It’s too short, for one thing, at just 88 minutes long, and it tries to pack far too much into that 88 minutes, where a film that ran two hours would be able to much more account for all of the story. More seriously, it treads on the same ground as a lot of war movies that have come before it, and that have in many cases done this better.
Briefly, The Desert Rats is the story of the siege of Tobruk. In military terms, Rommel has driven his Afrika Korps across the Sahara, conquering most of the northern part of Africa with the goal of reaching and claiming the Suez Canal. The only piece left to the British is Tobruk on the coast of Libya. While Rommel at this point probably could take the canal, leaving Tobruk to the British would leave his supply lines under constant threat. Desperate, the British assign the garrison to the 9th Australian Division and place by-the-book commander Captain “Tammy” MacRoberts (Richard Burton) to lead them. The men aren’t happy being placed under the command of a Brit. For his part, MacRoberts is shocked to find that one of his old school teachers, Tom Bartlett (Robert Newton), is in the Australian division.
The plan is for the 9th to hold Tobruk for two months before being relieved. The problem is that soon Tobruk is cut off completely and reinforcement and replacement becomes impossible. Rommel attacks the position under the cover of a sand storm, but the Allied troops allow him to enter the area and then close the trap on him, pushing the German tank troops back. This sets up a tense standoff, with the Allied troops running nightly raids on the German supply lines and holding their position during the day.
Eventually, Rommel decides to knock out Tobruk once and for all, moving up his artillery. MacRoberts leads a raid on the artillery, and while it is successful, he is captured and actually meets Rommel who is mildly amused by the British officer’s confidence. Eventually, as he and fellow POW Sergeant Smith (Chips Rafferty) are being transferred, they escape due to an RAF attack on the column and walk back to the Allied lines. Knowing a little of Rommel’s plans, MacRoberts gets ready for a final counterattack, this time with the knowledge that reinforcements are truly on the way.
So, like I said, there’s not a lot here that you haven’t seen before. We get battle scenes, tank attacks, captured main characters, and heroic actions. At least one character that we learn to like is going to get killed at some point. Rommel is going to be treated with some level of respect, but is also going to be played of as something like a villain, or at least as confident as the British soldiers are and with less reason.
There are some real problems here, although admittedly these aren’t fatal ones. The biggest ones are the ones I have already mentioned. The film is too short to adequately represent a siege that lasted for something like eight months and too much is just fast-forwarded through. MacRoberts and Smith escape and a moment or two later, they’re back at Tobruk. The meeting with Rommel, which should be a highlight, just happens and ends almost as quickly as it begins.
But there are smaller issues here as well. One of these is that we don’t so much have characters here as character types. Tom Bartlett is a drunk and a broken man who talks incessantly about the fact that he is a coward. If you think that means that he’ll do something terribly heroic by the end of the film, well, you’ve seen an early ‘50s war movie before. MacRoberts couldn’t be more straitlaced if he had a literal ruler stuck up his hinder. Beyond these things, it’s really interesting to see a Welsh actor play an English character with a Scottish surname leading Australian troops. I felt like we should have someone representing Canada, or that a couple of Gurkhas could be tossed in.
So yeah, I’m disappointed. It’s hard not to like this a little bit, but it’s equally hard to like it a lot.
Why to watch The Desert Rats: A good war story and James Mason as Rommel.
Why not to watch: There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
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