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.


After a pre-credit sequence depicting an unsuccessful British commando raid to assassinate Rommel, the story commences with the North African campaign in 1942 as the British, under General Bernard Montgomery prepare to counterattack and defeat the Germans at El Alamein. The situation becomes worse when Rommel is ordered by Adolf Hitler (Luther Adler) to stand fast and not retreat. Rommel considers the order foolish and a waste of both armor and infantry; as a result, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with Hitler after his pleas to evacuate his men are dismissed.

When Rommel falls ill shortly afterwards, he is returned to Germany, where he is hospitalized. An old family friend, Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), visits him there with a request to join a group plotting to overthrow Hitler. Rommel is hesitant. After his recuperation is complete, Rommel is transferred to the French coast, where he is placed in charge of defending the Atlantic Wall. After inspection, he realizes the "wall" offers little protection against an Allied invasion. He and his superior, Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll), are handicapped by Hitler's astrological belief that the real invasion will come at Calais. As a result, on D-Day, the Allies invade and secure a beachhead. For Rommel, this is the final straw; he joins the conspiracy to remove Hitler from power.

Later, after Rommel is seriously injured when his staff car is strafed by an Allied plane, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) plants a bomb where Hitler is expected to be in conference with his general staff. It explodes on cue, but the Führer survives. Thousands of suspects are tracked down and executed. An official silence surrounds Rommel. Soon after, General Wilhelm Burgdorf (Everett Sloane) is sent by Hitler to present Rommel with a stark choice: he can either be charged with treason and executed by garroting, or he can commit painless suicide. Rommel chooses the latter. He bids his wife and son goodbye, and climbs into Burgdorf's car for a rendezvous with his own fate.



Original book

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 myth

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. 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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