The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

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The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.

Tobruk (1967)

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Leo V. Gordon was once described by Don Siegel as the scariest man he’d ever met. The actor and writer wrote this and has a pretty neat role for himself as Sergeant Krug, one of the few to get out of it alive with Rock Hudson as Canadian Major Donald Craig who helps an Allied group destroy the Germans’ fuel reserves in Libya to stop Rommel progressing to the Suez Canal. There’s a good turn by George Peppard as the leader of German Jews working for the British Army and naturally there’s a traitor in their midst. There’s a good subplot involving Liam Redmond and Heidy Hunt as father and daughter who have a mission to accomplish a Holy War for that great Unmentionable participant in WW2 and architect of the Nazis’ plan to eliminate Jewry from the planet, Yasser Arafat’s cousin, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, not that anyone wants to talk about him in relation to Germany and Islam nowadays (or even then, given that he hid out in Switzerland and France then Egypt until his death in 1973). Ah World War 2, the gift that keeps on giving on Saturday afternoons. In real life, Operation Agreement was not a total success. Here, there’s an explosive finale and Nigel Green gets a great, terse scene when he comes face to face with the Nazi who has infiltrated them. It’s not easy to make a desert war work but underneath the stencilled livery and the tension there’s a good drama, well directed by Arthur Hiller and there’s a great scene when the raiders get the Germans and Italians to shoot at each other. PS I’ll gladly swap my car for one of those tanks. They rock.