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't...at 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
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): ***/****