The Desert Rats (film)

The Desert Rats is a 1953 American black-and-white war film from 20th Century Fox, produced by Robert L. Jacks, directed by Robert Wise, that stars Richard Burton, James Mason, and Robert Newton. The film's storyline concerns the Siege of Tobruk in North Africa during World War II.

The Desert Rats
The Desert Rats poster.jpg
Directed byRobert Wise
Produced byRobert L. Jacks
Written byRichard Murphy
StarringRichard Burton
James Mason
Robert Newton
Narrated byMichael Rennie
Music byLeigh Harline
CinematographyLucien Ballard
Edited byBarbara McLean
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • 20 May 1953 (1953-05-20) (USA)
Running time
88 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.1 million (US rentals)[2]


During mid-April 1941 in North Africa, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (James Mason) and his Afrika Korps have driven the British Army into headlong retreat toward Egypt and the vital Suez Canal. Standing in Rommel's way is Tobruk, a constant threat to his supply lines. The 9th Australian Division are charged with holding the port for two months, at which time they are to be relieved.

The defending Allied general (Robert Douglas) chooses British Captain "Tammy" MacRoberts (Richard Burton), an experienced field officer, to take command of a company of newly arrived, untried Australian troops. The no-nonsense MacRoberts is disliked by the undisciplined Australians. He is surprised to see in their ranks his former schoolmaster, Tom Bartlett (Robert Newton). Bartlett, an alcoholic, later explains that after being dismissed from his job in Britain due to his drinking, he went to Australia and joined the army while intoxicated. MacRoberts offers to transfer him to a safer billet, but Bartlett turns him down. Meanwhile, the inexperienced troops are sent directly into the front lines, where they dig foxholes and prepare for Rommel's attack. The Allied general masses his artillery where he guesses the Germans will strike. His gamble pays off. Under cover of a sandstorm, they attack exactly where the general predicted and head directly at MacRoberts' men. but the Germans are beaten back. As a result, MacRoberts is elevated to battalion command and made a lieutenant colonel.

It is decided to erode the Germans' confidence further by sending out small commando raids every night. MacRoberts' patrols do their part in exacting a toll on the enemy. But during a successful raid on a Nazi ammunition dump, MacRoberts is wounded and captured. While he is being treated by a German doctor, he meets Rommel, who has been shot by a strafing Spitfire. Although he is respectful to the field marshal, MacRoberts defiantly points out that Tobruk is a thorn in his side. Rommel is bemused by his brashness and orders that he be treated well. Later, MacRoberts escapes capture during an air raid on a German truck convoy, and he makes his way back to Allied lines.

The siege of Tobruk carries on for months. As a result, MacRoberts fears his men are becoming weary and will need to be relieved from action. But an order comes down from the general, asking MacRoberts to take his best company and hold a key position for three days. Nine days later, after constant attacks and shelling by the Germans, MacRoberts believes his men can take no more and orders a retreat. Surprisingly, the self-admitted coward, Bartlett, begs him to hang on. To MacRoberts' surprise, the rest of his men refuse to abandon the hill. Bartlett takes over the forward observation post, where survival is measured in hours. Eventually, the Australians hear bagpipes announcing the arrival of a relief column. After a hard-fought 242 days, the Allies have relieved Tobruk.



The film is based on the Australian 9th Division, who were charged with the defence of Tobruk under the command of General Leslie Morshead. Hoping to survive against overwhelming odds for two months, the garrison held off the best of Rommel's Afrika Korps for over eight months. Morshead was a distinguished Australian citizen-soldier, but is depicted in the film as the anonymous "General" and played by English actor Robert Douglas.



The film was a quasi-sequel to The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951), which had been successful critically and commercially, particularly in England. It was, reportedly, partly made to portray a less likeable General Rommel, after criticism that film had been too friendly to the Germans. Rommel is again played by James Mason only this time he usually speaks in German and is not sympathetic. The title "Desert Rats" was selected to refer to the earlier title "Desert Fox".[3] Mason wore Rommel's real scarf in the film, which had been given to him by the general's widow.[4]

In October 1951 Fox announced that Robert L. Jacks would produce and Sam Fuller, who saw active duty in World War Two and who had just made Fixed Bayonets for Fox, would direct. The film was based on a book, The Siege of Tobruk by Gregory Rogers, and filming was to start in January 1952.[5][6] Zanuck said research revealed a few Americans were involved in the siege but none appeared in the final film.[7]

Filming was delayed and Fuller dropped out to work on other films. In July 1952 Fox announced that that filming would take place in September and the three leads would be played by Michael Rennie, Robert Newton and James Robertson Justice. (Rennie and Newton had just made Les Miserables together).[8][9]

The script was written by an American, Richard Murphy, who was familiar with Australian servicemen from his time being a liaison officer with the Ninth Division in New Guinea, after its withdrawal from the Middle East in 1942.[10]

Filming was pushed back further. In October Fox replaced Rennie with Richard Burton, who had just appeared in My Cousin Rachel for the studio and signed a contract with Fox to make one film a year for ten years.[11] (Instead, as he had done in The Desert Fox several years earlier, Rennie delivered an uncredited voiceover.) The same month Robert Wise was assigned to direct.[12]

Several genuine Australian actors were cast, including Chips Rafferty, Charles Tingwell, Michael Pate and John O'Malley. Tingwell and Rafferty had just made Kangaroo (1952) for Fox in Australia and were flown to Hollywood.

Richard Boone, who had just made Kangaroo with Rafferty and Tingwell, was announced for an important role.[13] He ended up not appearing in the film. In November, Robert Newton's casting was confirmed, as was that of James Mason, who would reprise his role as Rommel.[14]

Filming started December 1952. Australian journalist Alan Moorehead was used as a consultant and the technical adviser was an Englishman now in the Canadian Army, Lieutenant George Aclund, who took part in the defence of Tobruk.[15]

The battle sequences were shot near Borrego Springs, a Californian desert town. Some background scenes were taken from the documentary Desert Victory (1943).


The title of the film is a misnomer: The "Desert Rats" were actually the British 7th Armoured Division, the name coming from their jerboa shoulder flash. The Australian 9th Division besieged at Tobruk were denigrated as being "caught like rats in a trap" by German propaganda, the Australians calling themselves "the Rats of Tobruk" with pride as a result.

Also, Erwin Rommel is described as a field marshal at the time of the siege when he was actually a lieutenant-general; he would become a field marshal in June 1942, after the fall of Tobruk.

Chips Rafferty and Charles Tingwell had both served in the army, and said they tried to correct inaccuracies in the script, but were only partly successful. "The script was full of Cockney idiom", said Rafferty. "I was invited to look over it a week before shooting began, and managed to get some of it changed into Australian slang."[15] "There's one scene in which the sergeant – myself – refuses to obey the colonel's order, while two lieutenants stand idly by", added Rafferty. "That will raise some Ninth Division eyebrows."[15]

A key plot point involved the Australian general deliberately letting German tanks through the defences. "To my knowledge there was no such plan to let the Germans in through the outer defences", said Tingwell. "But whenever difficulties of that sort were mentioned the Hollywood experts claimed to be working on a script based on the actual battle plans of the campaign."[15]

Other criticisms made of the film include the fact no British officer was ever placed in command of an Australian battalion in Tobruk, and there was no raid on the ammunition dump as depicted, although there was one on the Twin Pimples, held by Italy, and there is no depiction of the British, Polish or Indian troops who were there.

Prior to the film being screened, Chips Rafferty admitted it was likely the film would be criticised by ex-servicemen. "To tell the truth, I think there's going to be a bit of a howl", he said.[15] This prediction proved to be correct. Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead said that, "The story is wholly foreign to the Tobruk I knew, and to its force which comprised almost as many gallant, purposeful British troops as those of the Ninth Division, all of whom I had the honour to command."[15]


The film received generally good reviews from British critics, although they complained the British contribution to the campaign had been minimised.[16] Australian critics were also positive despite the historical inaccuracies.[17][18]

The film was banned in Egypt.[19]

During production, 20th Century Fox offered Charles Tingwell, who had also appeared in Fox's Kangaroo, a seven-year contract, but he turned it down because he wanted to keep working in Australia.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p. 248
  2. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1953', Variety, January 13, 1954
  3. ^ "'Rats' – by Hollywood". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 15 July 1952. p. 4. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  4. ^ "'Brigadoon' as a 3-D film?". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 22 May 1953. p. 16. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  5. ^ Drama: 'Desert Rats' Follows 'Desert Fox;' Unusual 'Napoleon' Film Slated Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]23 Oct 1951: B7.
  6. ^ KRAMER, FOREMAN: Producer and Script Writer Part Company After Dispute on Congressional Inquiry Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]23 Oct 1951: 35
  7. ^ Drama: 'Madam' With Merman Due for Summer Start; Lindfors Role Sighted Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times3 Nov 1951: 11.
  8. ^ Drama: Crosby-Astaire Film to Gladden Winter; Trio Named for 'Desert Rats' Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]07 July 1952: B9.
  9. ^ "Fox Plans Tobruk Film". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 15 July 1952. p. 3. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  10. ^ "Tobruk Rats in big battle film". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 18 February 1953. p. 24. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  11. ^ FOUR FILM ACTORS FIND LIFE IS ROSY: Contracts With Major Studios Signed by Burton, Bancroft, Corey and Robertson By THOMAS M. PRYORSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 7 Oct 1952: 26.
  12. ^ STUDIO BRIEFS Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]16 Oct 1952: B10
  13. ^ "JOHN FORD TO HELP IRISH MOVIE GROUP: Director to Spend 3 Months in Ireland Next Summer on Plans for Native Firm" by THOMAS M. PRYOR New York Times 4 Oct 1952: 14.
  14. ^ BETTE DAVIS IS SET FOR FRIEDLOB FILM: Actress Will Make 2d Picture for Producer Next Summer -- Eunson, Albert Authors By THOMAS M. PRYORSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 8 Nov 1952: 9.
  15. ^ a b c d e f "Hollywood's Tobruk Will Startle A.I.F." The Sunday Herald. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 1 March 1953. p. 16. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  16. ^ "London Critics Praise 'The Desert Rats'". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 27 April 1953. p. 3. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  17. ^ "TOBRUK RATS". The Mercury. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 10 April 1954. p. 18. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  18. ^ "NEW FILMS". The Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 22 May 1954. p. 7. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  19. ^ "PASSED 'THE DESERT FOX,' BUT". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 15 January 1954. p. 4. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  20. ^ Charles Tingwell interview at Australian Biography

External linksEdit