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The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel

The Desert Fox is a 1951 black-and-white biographical war film from 20th Century Fox about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the later stages of World War II. It stars James Mason in the title role, was directed by Henry Hathaway, and was based on the book Rommel: The Desert Fox by Brigadier Desmond Young, who served in the British Indian Army in North Africa.

The Desert Fox
DVD Cover
Directed byHenry Hathaway
Produced byNunnally Johnson
Screenplay byNunnally Johnson
Based onbook by Desmond Young
StarringJames Mason
Cedric Hardwicke
Jessica Tandy
Narrated byMichael Rennie
Music byDaniele Amfitheatrof
CinematographyNorbert Brodine
Edited byJames B. Clark
20th Century Fox
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 17, 1951 (1951-10-17)
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.4 million (US rentals)[1][2]

The movie played a significant role in the creation of the Rommel myth: that Rommel was an apolitical, brilliant commander, opposed Nazi policies and was a victim of the Third Reich because of his (now-disputed) participation in the 20 July plot against Adolf Hitler.[citation needed]


The film begins with a pre-credit sequence depicting Operation Flipper, a British commando raid whose aim is to assassinate Rommel, which subsequently fails.

After the credits, the story is introduced by narrator Michael Rennie, who dubs the voice of then Lieutenant-Colonel Desmond Young, who plays himself in the film. Young is captured and meets Rommel briefly as a prisoner of war. He states that Rommel was his enemy at the time and even an enemy of civilisation. Young escapes and makes it his mission after the war to discover what really happened to Rommel during the final years of his life: when Young wrote his book, it was believed that Rommel had died as a result of the wounds he had suffered when an Allied fighter strafed his staff car.

The film flashbacks to 1941 and 42, as the British prepare to counterattack Egypt, directed by General Bernard Montgomery: The Germans are defeated at El Alamein in 1942. The situation is made worse when Rommel is ordered by Adolf Hitler (Luther Adler) to stand fast and not retreat, even in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority in men and supplies, but the retreat is allowed. Rommel becomes increasingly disillusioned with Hitler after his pleas to evacuate his men are dismissed. An ailing Rommel is sent back to Germany to recuperate while his beloved Afrika Korps is driven back across North Africa and destroyed.

Rommel is approached while in hospital by an old family friend, Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), with a request to join a group plotting to overthrow Hitler. Rommel is very hesitant. Strölin departs and immediately afterward evades a Gestapo agent assigned to watch him.

Rommel is placed in charge of defending the Atlantic Wall against the anticipated Allied invasion, but he knows the "wall" offers little protection. When the Allies land in France on 6 June 1944, he and his superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll), are handicapped by Hitler's astrological belief that it is a diversion, with the real invasion to come at the Strait of Dover. As a result, they are denied urgently needed reinforcements, allowing the Allies to secure a beachhead. That is the final straw, and Rommel joins the conspiracy. However, when he tries to recruit Rundstedt, the latter excuses himself by stating he is too old for such things but wishes Rommel well, saying that he will succeed him by morning. (Later, Rommel is found to have not been appointed as his successor.)

Plans are set in motion to remove Hitler. Rommel finally insists on meeting Hitler personally in an effort to persuade him to see reason. Hitler does not heed Rommel's gloomy predictions about the war and rants that wonder weapons in development will turn the tide. Shortly afterward, Rommel is seriously injured when his car is strafed by an Allied aeroplane. Thus, he is recovering in a hospital when, on 20 July 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) plants a bomb in Hitler's conference room. It goes off, but the Führer survives. Thousands of suspects are tracked down and executed. An official silence surrounds Rommel.

General Wilhelm Burgdorf (Everett Sloane) is sent by Hitler to present Rommel with a stark choice: he can either be charged with treason for which the penalty will be excruciating death by garroting, or he can commit painless suicide. It would be announced that he had died of his previous injuries, he would receive a hero's funeral, his fame would be preserved and Hitler's regime would avoid scandal. Rommel initially chooses to defend himself in the People's Court, but when Burgdorf hints that Rommel's family would suffer from his decision, he decides to commit suicide to save them. He is given the option of taking a painless drug that Burgdorf has brought, and he must do so before evening. He takes leave of his wife, Lucie (Jessica Tandy), his aide-de-camp (Richard Boone) and his son Manfred (who suspects nothing is wrong), and he departs with Burgdorf. As the car is driven away, the film ends with (voice of Michael Rennie) Desmond Young's speculation about Rommel's last thoughts, with brief visual flashbacks of his earlier victories in the Western Desert Campaign from Tobruk through El Alamein, and a final action close up of Rommel standing in the gun turret of his tank as head of his panzer forces in Africa, with a voice-over tribute uttered in a postwar speech before Parliament by "Nazi Germany's sternest enemy", Winston Churchill, praising the famed Desert Fox.



Original bookEdit

The film was based on a book by Desmond Young. This would go on to sell 175,000 copies in England.[3][4]

The New York Times called it "extremely interesting".[5]


In February 1950, before the book was published, it was announced Nunnally Johnson of Fox was leading the negotiations to obtain the film rights to the book. Johnson would write and produce and Kirk Douglas was the first star mentioned.[6][7][8]

Johnson eventually made the film as the first part of his new five year contract with Fox.[9] He normally took ten weeks to write a script but says this one took him eight months because it was so complex, and involved many people who were still alive. While writing it he says the British were generally positive (Rommell had a very high reputation in Britain) but there was some controversy in the US about a Hollywood studio making a sympathetic biopic about a German general.[3][10]

Johnson later said, "If Rommell hadn't been involved in the plot against Hitler, this screenplay wouldn't have been written. Circumstances allowed Rommell to be a pretty good fellow because there were no civilians involved in the North Africa campaigns. I have tried to write the script with detachment. There is no effort to solicit sympathy for him, except in the final sequence. There are the circumstances as he says goodbye to his wife and son to go to his death would undoubtedly create sympathy for any man. Rommell was a very limited man intellectually. His problem was a conflict of loyalties. He followed a false god and when he found that out he risked being a traitor."[11]

In January 1951 Henry Hathaway, who had signed to direct, left to shoot second unit footage in Germany and North Africa. Richard Widmark was being talked about as a possible Rommel.[12]

In February 1951 James Mason signed to play Rommell.[13] Mason's career had been on a downward slide since he moved to the US from Britain and he had lobbied Darryl F Zanuck to play the role and was so keen to do it he agreed to sign a long term contract with Fox, to make one film a year for seven years.[14]

The movie was one of the first to use a pre-credit sequence.[15]


The film was very popular in Britain, despite incidents such as when Ethel Sears got up during a screening and demanded people not watch the film.[16]

Role in Rommel mythEdit

The movie played a significant role in the Rommel myth, a view that the Field Marshal was an apolitical, brilliant commander and a victim of the Third Reich because of his (now-disputed) participation in the 20 July plot against Adolf Hitler. The myth was created with Rommel's participation as a component of Nazi propaganda to praise the Wehrmacht and instill optimism in the German public. From 1941, it was picked up and disseminated in the West by the British press, as it sought to explain its continued inability to defeat the Axis forces in North Africa.

After the war, the Western Allies, and particularly the British, depicted Rommel as the "good German" and "our friend Rommel". His reputation for conducting a clean war was used for the West German rearmament as well as reconciliation between the former enemies –: Britain and the United States on one side and the new Federal Republic on the other.[17]

They portrayed Rommel sympathetically, as a loyal, humane soldier and a firm opponent of Hitler's policies. The movie plays up Rommel's disputed role in the conspiracy against Hitler[18] but omits Rommel's early association with the dictator. Critical and public reception in the US was muted, but the movie was a success in Britain, along with a less-known 1953 movie The Desert Rats in which Mason resumed his portrayal of Rommel.[19]

The movie proved one of the suitable tools for the reconciliation among the former enemies. British popular knowledge focuses on the reconstruction of the fighting in that theatre of war, almost to the exclusion of all others. The Desert Fox helped in creating an image of the German army that would be acceptable to the British public.[20]

The film received nearly-universally positive reviews in Britain, but protests at the movie theatres broke out in Vienna and Milan. Basil Liddell Hart, who later edited Rommel's wartime writings into the 1953 book The Rommel Papers, watching the movie with other high-ranking British officers, reported being "pleasantly surprised".[21]



  1. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1951', Variety, January 2, 1952
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 p 223
  3. ^ a b Appealing Script Wins Helen Hayes for Film Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 28 Jan 1951: D4.
  4. ^ Books--Authors New York Times 26 Sep 1950: 29.
  5. ^ Books of The Times: Vivid Accounts of Remarkable Man Admired Hitler but Scorned Nazis By ORVILLE PRESCOTT. New York Times 17 Jan 1951: 40.
  6. ^ Drama: 'Tender Hours' Speeded; Kent Taylor Aissigned; 'Bulls' Leads Chosen Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 14 Feb 1950: B5.
  7. ^ MEL FERRER GETS LEAD AT COLUMBIA: Studio Assigns Him to 'Brave Bulls,' With Eugene Iglesias Playing Younger Brother Seeks 'Rights' to "Rommel" By THOMAS F. BRADY Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 14 Feb 1950: 29.
  8. ^ PRODUCER AT BAY: Nunnally Johnson Scans Varied Film Matters Challenge Exception Paging Youth By THOMAS M. PRYOR. New York Times 26 Feb 1950: X5.
  9. ^ Second O'Malley-Malone Film Set; Five-Year Pact Seals Nunnally Johnson Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 18 Oct 1950: B7.
  10. ^ Johnson p 294
  12. ^ Drama: Barry Sullivan Legal Rival of Pidgeon; Rommel March Scheduled Here Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 15 Jan 1951: A11.
  13. ^ PROTEST IS LODGED ON HOPE G.I. SHOW: Chanute Field's Admission Fee for 'Free' Entertainment Is Decried by Film Group By THOMAS F. BRADY New York Times 3 Feb 1951: 20.
  14. ^ English Stars Thrive Happily in Unusual Marital Melange Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 6 May 1951: E1.
  15. ^ Johnson p 296-306
  16. ^ NOTED ON THE LONDON SCREEN SCENE: Film Circles View New Ministry With Gloom --Other Matters Production Notes Fox" Footnotes Speed-Up By STEPHEN WATTS. New York Times 18 Nov 1951: X5.
  17. ^ Major 2008, p. 520-535.
  18. ^ Chambers 2012.
  19. ^ Caddick-Adams 2012, p. 481.
  20. ^ Major 2008, p. 521.
  21. ^ Major 2008, p. 525.


  • Caddick-Adams, Peter (2012). Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives. New York, NY: The Overlook Press. ISBN 9781590207253.
  • Chambers, Madeline (2012). "The Devil's General? German film seeks to debunk Rommel myth". Reuters. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  • Johnson, Nunnally (1969). Recollections of Nunnally Johnson oral history transcript. University of California Oral History Program.
  • Major, Patrick (2008). "'Our Friend Rommel': The Wehrmacht as 'Worthy Enemy' in Postwar British Popular Culture". German History. Oxford University Press. 26 (4): 520–535. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghn049.

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