The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Desert Rats

When I think of Richard Burton, I think Actor with a capital A. A little eccentric, maybe a little more nutty, but at his heart a true actor in the sense of the word. What I like so much about Burton was that when he could have been some crazy, pretentious Shakespearean nutcase, he didn' least on film. He did fun, entertaining movies, not just acting movies. Early in his career in 1953's The Desert Rats, we get the best of both worlds.

It's spring 1941, and German Field Marshal Edwin Rommel (James Mason) and his army are pushing the Allied forces back further with each passing day. In the Libyan port city of Tobruk, Allied forces -- predominantly English and Australian -- have been completely cut off by Rommel's army and have been given the order to hold the city until relief comes. Among those soldiers trapped in the city is Capt. MacRoberts (Burton), a Scotsman who was one of the few survivors from his unit caught in a German ambush. He's given command of an inexperienced, newly arrived company of Australian infantry. He's forced to whip them into shape quickly as the German noose around the city tightens.

If it is a WWII movie about the North African campaign, it appears the story must focus solely on Tobruk. Whether it's this flick, Raid on Rommel, the aptly named Tobruk, Play Dirty, even The Rat Patrol, a North Africa campaign has to deal with this famous port city. Not a classic movie, it's especially interesting considering the time it was released. By 1953, WWII was still fresh enough in people's minds, but director Robert Wise isn't making a propaganda movie here. This isn't evil Nazis battling infallible Brits. It's just two sides fighting it out in the desert without any notion of  a bigger picture. It certainly marked a change in trends the years passed since the end of WWII.

For a generally forgotten WWII movie from the 1950s, I came away quite impressed with the action sequences. An extended siege -- the German siege of Tobruk lasted eight months -- isn't necessarily the most exciting thing to watch, but Wise keeps things moving in his 88-minute long movie. An early tank battle in a driving sandstorm sets the tone, not a huge scale battle but harrowing nonetheless. Commando raids across the desert to German lines are handled in a brutally efficient montage, and a deep behind enemy lines raid after a German ammo dump is the high point. The action isn't just there for action's sake though. We see the wearing down of the soldiers, the toll the extended siege has on them, especially in a fitting, moving finale as the end of the siege nears.

Just 28 years old when he starred in 'Desert Rats,' Burton is the unquestioned star here. He's a commander who looks out for his men, pushing them because he knows it will benefit them when the battles begin. His MacRoberts doesn't care if his men hate him. Their hatred can be a motivator as survival hangs in the balance. He has some excellent scenes with Robert Newton's Bartlett, MacRobert's former schoolteacher who's now a drunk and questioning his own bravery (or lack of). It's a subtle shift too, but the character ends up changing for the better by the end. Reprising his role from 1951's The Desert Fox, Mason is basically making a cameo appearance as Rommel, making the most of his few short scenes. Robert Douglas and Torin Thatcher play the British commanders in Tobruk with Chips Rafferty, Charles Tingwell, an uncredited Michael Pate, Charles Davis and Ben Wright playing some of MacRobert's men.

Covering so much ground in terms of time in an 88-minute movie, the story does feel rushed at different parts. A 2-hour movie could have fleshed things out a little, but as is, the movie is pretty solid on its own. There is that problem of having German characters talk in German for entire scenes without subtitles, but most of them are early on in the film. I have this weird thing about understanding what's going on in the movies I'm watching, but maybe that's just me. Subtitles, please! Still a very enjoyable, well-made WWII story.

The Desert Rats <---trailer (1953): ***/****


  1. I've never been a big fan of Richard Burton. He's often a very stiff actor and can be outright terrible at times. I could probably count on one hand the films he's impressed me in, Becket and maybe Virginia Woolf.

    Today though I saw Look Back in Anger. While not crazy about the film as a whole, I was really blown away by Burton's performance - head and shoulders above all of his other work. He brings a real naturalism and emotion to that movie lacking in most of his films. I may want to reappraise Burton.

    But yeah, I've wanted to see The Desert Rats for awhile. I like The Desert Fox for all its flaws and am interested in seeing James Mason play Rommel again. Wise is usually good. Thanks for the review Tim.

  2. Don't go in expecting a whole lot of Mason. It's basically an extended two/three scene cameo, and one of the scenes (I think) is in German without subtitles.

  3. I checked this movie out today. An entertaining little programmer, nothing special but enjoyable. I couldn't help noticing though that the German troops carried Tommy guns throughout the film!

  4. That's a big reason I liked it too. Nothing epic or profound, just a solid story about a group of men trying to make it through WWII.