Monday, August 12, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Desert Rats" (1953)

"The Desert Rats" is a quasi/sorta sequel to "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommell" with James Mason reprising his role as the famed German military tactician. I didn't care for the first film, as described in a previous column, but the follow-up is quite a ripping good war picture, as the old-timers are wont to say. (They are also wont to use antediluvian terms, like "wont" and "antediluvian.")

Instead of being a sympathetic, heroic figure, this time Rommel has a supporting role as the arrogant German commander, speaking mostly German and inspiring terror in all those around him. The focus, rather, is on the Australian troops who defied him during the long siege of Tobruk, a turning point in the World War II African front.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, one of Hollywood's most successful genre-hopping directors, and it was just Richard Burton's second American film, released when he was age 27. Burton was one of those actors who always seemed older than he really was -- when I first started watching the film I thought it was made in the mid-1960s, when in fact it came out in '53.

It's not that he appeared prematurely aged, despite his life of hard drinking and smoking; rather, his manly bearing and clipped line readings tended to make him seem more authoritarian and older.

Burton and Mason share one great scene together, where both men are wounded and being treated in a German medical tent, after Burton's character has been captured. Both actors taunt and sneer at each other, a mano-a-mano combat of words by two bloodied but proud men. It's also practically a contest to see which thespian can display better diction.

As far as historic fidelity goes, "The Desert Rats" is a total wipeout. Start out with the fact that the title got its nickname from an entirely different British outfit. In the film the Australian 9th Division holds the seaside base of Tobruk against Rommel for over eight months, allowing time for a newly-formed Allied army to forum up in Egypt and head west to oppose him. The real Aussies began referring to themselves as "the rats of Tobruk" in defiance of German propaganda that labeled them so.

Virtually everything that is depicted, from the personnel to the military tactics, was a fabrication by screenwriter Richard Murphy. The key sequence in which the British commanders allow Rommel's Panzers to penetrate their outer defenses as a trap is a concoction, as is the daring commando raid undertaken to blow up a German ammunition dump. And in actuality, the Australians were withdrawn after five months and the latter portion of the defense held by British troops.

In the best Hollywood tradition, Murphy, having taken a real, dramatic event and made up virtually everything about it for his script, was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

And he deserved it. "The Desert Rats" is a war adventure, not a historical drama, and its allegiance is to its own semblance of truth, not a factual one.

Burton plays "Tammy" MacRoberts, aka Mac, a British infantryman captain who's given lead of an Australian outfit when their commander buys it. Over the course of the long siege, he is promoted to major and then a field promotion to lieutenant colonel, and placed in charge of several battalions.

The Aussies are naturally distrustful of having a British officer command them, and the resentment grows to near-mutiny level when Mac orders the Australian lieutenant (Charles Tingwell) court-martialed for leaving his post during a barrage to rescue a fellow officer. After getting a talking-to by both an Australian confidante and the British general, he agrees to withdraw the charges.

Eventually, Mac garners the respect of his troops and does them proud. His main access point in this endeavor is Tom Bartlett (Robert Newton), a middle-aged private who turns out to be an old schoolmaster of Mac's. He is deferential to his old teacher, repeatedly referring to him as "sir" despite their wide distance in rank and showing favoritism toward Bartlett in terms of cushy assignments.

Bartlett is an interesting character to have dropped into the middle of a film like this, and despite a fine performance by Newton -- best remembered for playing Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island" -- the character never really quite fits in. A self-confessed drunk, failure and coward, Bartlett moved to Australia to start a new life and enlisted while intoxicated when war broke out.

Near the end Bartlett volunteers for the most dangerous assignment there is, manning the forward sentry post where soldiers last about four hours before being killed. In movies of this sort, it's virtually a requirement that a character such as his die a noble death, but here Bartlett survives and is cheered by his fellow soldiers, becoming the unofficial mascot of their defiance.

As a footnote, I'd like to point out that "Rats" is one of those testosterone-laden movies in which no women have speaking roles, or are even seen. At one point we see a photograph of Mac's wife, as he comments that he's only seen her for a week since they got married in 1939 (the events take place in '41) and he's never met his son.

Wise and Murphy keep the action focused on the men and the military strategy, rather than making the mistake so many war pictures do of bringing in a bunch of mushy romance and secondary plots to distract us. At a crisp 86 minutes, "The Desert Rats" is all business.

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