The Rats of Tobruk (film)

The Rats of Tobruk is a 1944 Australian film directed by Charles Chauvel. An abridged version was released in the United States in 1951 as The Fighting Rats of Tobruk. The film follows three drover friends who enlist in the Australian Army together during World War II. Their story is based on the siege of the Libyan city of Tobruk in North Africa by Rommel's Afrika Korps. The largely Australian defenders held the city for 250 days before being relieved by British forces.

The Rats of Tobruk
Directed byCharles Chauvel
Produced byCharles Chauvel
Charles Munro
Written byCharles Chauvel
Elsa Chauvel
Maxwell Dunn (commentary)
StarringGrant Taylor
Peter Finch
Chips Rafferty
George Wallace
Music byLindley Evans (Musical Direction)
Charles Mackerras (Associate)
Willie Redstone (Associate)
CinematographyGeorge Heath
Edited byGus Lowry
Chamun Productions
Distributed byRKO (Australia)
Umbrella Entertainment
Release date
7 December 1944 (Australia)
1949 (UK)
1951 (USA)
Running time
95 mins (Aust)
68 minutes


Three friends are droving cattle in Australia in 1939: the restless Bluey Donkin, easy-going Milo Trent and English Peter Linton, who is in the country on a working holiday. Squatter's daughter Kate Carmody is in love with Bluey but he refuses to be tied down to any one woman. War breaks out and the three men enlist in the Australian army and are assigned to the 9th Division. They ship out to Africa.

After early successes against the Italian army, the army is besieged in Tobruk. In between attacks, the men have comic encounters with a barber and Peter falls for a nurse, Sister Mary, after being wounded. There are several subsequent attacks in which all three soldiers are wounded. Peter Linton is killed but the others manage to repel the Germans.

Bluey and Milo are then transferred to New Guinea, where Bluey is injured and Milo killed by a sniper. Bluey manages to kill the sniper and returns to Australia, where he is reunited with Kate.


  • Grant Taylor as Bluey Donkin
  • Peter Finch as Peter Linton
  • Chips Rafferty as Milo Trent
  • George Wallace as the barber of Tobruk
  • Pauline Garrick as Kate Carmody
  • Mary Gay as Sister Mary Ellis
  • Joe Valli as the Northumberland Fusilier
  • John Sherwood
  • Walter Pym
  • Norman Blackler
  • Gilbert Ellis
  • Robert Carlyle
  • Joe Anderson
  • Toni Villa as Japanese soldier



Chauvel made the film as a follow up to his enormously popular Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940). Like that movie, it follows three friends overseas to war, and starred Grant Taylor and Chips Rafferty.

Chauvel announced plans to make the film in late 1942.[1] He spent a year researching and writing, and securing government cooperation.[2] Financing was obtained from Hoyts, RKO-Radio, and Commonwealth Film Laboratories.[3][4] Production of the movie was even announced in The New York Times.[5]

Mary Gay was working as a clerk in a department store when discovered in a talent quest and cast in the role of the nurse who romances Peter Finch.[6]


Shooting took place in late 1943. Taylor, Rafferty and Finch were all serving in the Australian army and played their parts on leave. A set representing the town of Tobruk was constructed in a field near Camden. Underground firing posts and dugouts were reconstructed in the studio of Commonwealth Film Laboratories. The Cronulla sandhills stood in for the African desert, and battle scenes were shot there at nighttime.[7] Watson's Bay was used to shoot scenes of Australian soldiers embarking by boat.[8]

The New Guinea sequences were shot at Lamington Plateau, near the crash site of the 1937 Stinson plane. (That wreck had been discovered by Bernard O'Reilly who inspired Chauvel's later film, Sons of Matthew.) Army photographers also shot real-life footage in Papua for use in the movie.[9] Filipino boxer Tony Villa plays the Japanese soldier who fights Grant Taylor at the end.[10]

Captured German and Italian weaponry was used throughout filming.[11] In 1943, the 3rd Army Tank Battalion was equipped with a squadron of Australian built Sentinel AC1 tanks which had been modified to resemble German tanks. The army provided advisers who had served in Tobruk.[12]

Filming ended in June 1944.[2]



The film received mixed reviews. The critic from the Argus thought it was better than Forty Thousand Horsemen[13] but the one from the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that:

The fictional background is dull and uninventive, the characterisation often stilted and self-consciously patterned to arbitrary types, and the editing loose and jumpy as the story which, in its amateurishness, is a dead-weight on the entire production. The chief merits of the film, which was made in the face of great difficulties that may explain, but do not excuse, its weaknesses for a commercial market, are its reconstruction of Tobruk and the fidelity of its action scenes to historic fact. Yet, while these action scenes are truthful, their interpretation by the aim leaves their outlines and purposes vague so that an audience has to guess too much about who's fighting who and what the strategy is.[14]

Filmink magazine later wrote "I’m not quite sure what Taylor did during his war service, but it was having its impact already by the time of this film – Taylor looks puffier, more balder, less enthusiastic. He’s still pretty good, just not as good as in Horseman – like the film itself really, which was a commercial disappointment."[15]

Box Office

Early box office response was encouraging[16] but the movie was not as popular as Forty Thousand Horsemen.

US Release

It was not released in the US until 1951.[17] The critic from The New York Times called the movie "one of the most harrowing bores in years from anywhere... most of the eighty five minutes is crawling agony... it's a toss up as to which is more primeval, Mr Chauvel's direction or the acting of the entire cast."[18]

See also


  1. "FILM PLANNED ON TOBRUK "RATS"". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 7 November 1942. p. 10. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  2. ""RATS OF TOBRUK" FTLM SOON". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 7 June 1944. p. 6. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  3. "HOW AN AUSTRALIAN FILM IS MADE". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 16 September 1944. p. 6 Supplement: The Argus Week-end Magazine. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  4. "FILMING "THE RATS OF TOBRUK"". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 7 December 1944. p. 2. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  5. "A BIT OF THIS AND THAT ABOUT THE FILM SCENE" by THOMAS M. PRYOR. New York Times 29 Aug 1943: X3.
  6. "Film Role For Sydney Girl". Sunday Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 19 March 1944. p. 6. Retrieved 9 March 2014.
  7. "BY WAYS OF THE ARMY". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 17 June 1944. p. 7. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  8. ""RATS OF TOBRUK" AT WATSON'S BAY". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 17 June 1944. p. 3. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  9. "CHAUVEL FILM MEN IN JUNGLE". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 29 December 1943. p. 8. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  10. "JAPANESE TROPHIES FOR FILMS". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 12 June 1944. p. 4. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  11. "FILM TO DEPICT EPIC DEFENCE OF TOBRUK". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 5 August 1943. p. 6. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  12. "Films You'll be Seeing Soon". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 4 September 1943. p. 10. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  13. "GREAT AUSTRALIAN WAR FILM". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 8 December 1944. p. 2. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  14. "NEW FILMS IN SYDNEY THEATRES". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 11 December 1944. p. 5. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  15. Vagg, Stephen (29 July 2019). "Unsung Aussie Filmmakers – Grant Taylor: A Top Ten". Filmink.
  16. "PUBLIC APPRECIATES "RATS OF TOBRUK"". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 14 December 1944. p. 4. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  17. "New York calls 'The Rats' 'a most harrowing bore'". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 25 May 1951. p. 7. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  18. "THE SCREEN: FOUR FILMS HAVE PREMIERES HERE: Danny Kaye 'On the Riviera,' With Gene Tierney, Arrives at the Roxy Theatre 'Smuggler's Island' at Rivoli-- Paramount Showing 'Sealed Cargo'--'Tobruk' at City At the Paramount At the Rivoli At the City Theatre" by BOSLEY CROWTHER. New York Times 24 May 1951: 57.
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