AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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The Desert Rats
Director: Robert Wise (Dir)
Release Date:   May 1953
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles opening: 6 May 1953; New York opening: 8 May 1953
Production Date:   11 Nov--late Dec 1952
Duration (in mins):   88
Duration (in feet):   7,918
Duration (in reels):   10
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Cast:   Richard Burton (Capt. Tammy MacRoberts)  
    Robert Newton (Tom Bartlett)  
    Robert Douglas (General)  
    Torin Thatcher (Col. Barney White)  
    Chips Rafferty (Sgt. Blue Smith)  
    Charles Tingwell (Lt. Harry Carstairs)  
    Charles Davis (Pete)  
    Ben Wright (Mick)  
  and James Mason ([Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel)  
    James Lilburn (Communications man)  
    John O'Malley (Riley)  
    Ray Harden (Hugh)  
    John Alderson (Corporal)  
    Ashley Cowan (Corporal)  
    Richard Peel (Rusty)  
    Michael Pate (Capt. Currie)  
    Frank Pulaski (Maj. O'Rourke)  
    Charles Keane (Sgt. Donaldson)  
    Pat O'Moore (Jim)  
    Trevor Constable (Ginger)  
    Albert Taylor (Jensen)  
    John Wengraf (German doctor)  
    Arno Frey (Kramm)  
    Alfred Zeisler (Von Helmholtz)  
    Charles FitzSimons (Fire officer)  
    Noel Drayton (Captain)  
    Gilchrist Stuart (Captain)  
    Gavin Muir (Captain)  
    Gene Darrell (Aussie)  
    Art Gilmour (Aussie)  
    Nick Coster (Medic)  
    Frederick Stevens (German major)  
    Otto Reichow (Gunner)  
    Jerry Riggio (Commando)  
    Frank Chase (Commando)  
    Frederick Brune (German gunner)  
    John Blackburn (Sergeant)  
    John Fraser (Artillery man)  
    Tony Christian (German sentry)  
    Robert Boon (German lieutenant)  
    Per Skavlan (German guard)  
    Paul V. Busch (German orderly)  
    Harald Dyrenforth (Observer)  
    Lester Matthews (Foreign secretary)  
    Jack Raine (C.I.C.)  
    Clyde Morris (British communications man)  
    Arthur Brunner (German radio man)  
    Pat Aherne (English officer)  
    Peter Ortiz (Wireman)  
    Paul Cavanagh (Colonel)  
    Michael Rennie (Narrator)  

Summary: In mid-Apr 1941, during World War II, Germany's Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, has repeatedly beaten the Allies in the struggle for control of North Africa. Desperate to prevent Rommel from gaining control of the Suez Canal, the British Army, in retreat and trying to rebuild its strength, establishes one last stronghold in Tobruk. The British headquarters in Cairo orders the 9th Australian Division to hold Tobruk for two months, at which time they will be relieved. The general meets with artillery colonel Barney White and other officers to explain that the division will have three perimeters of defense: the outlying perimeter of infantry, the second perimeter of White's artillery, and the inner line of fortifications. The general, needing an experienced field officer to oversee the green Australian troops assigned to the infantry perimeter, chooses English officer Capt. Tammy MacRoberts. MacRoberts, a coolly efficient and unemotional officer who is disliked by the Australians, is surprised to see among their ranks his former schoolmaster, Tom Bartlett. As the battalion marches to their desert outpost, they are hit by artillery, and the men resent being pushed on by MacRoberts instead of being allowed to tend to their fallen comrades. At their encampment, Barlett, an alcholic, explains to MacRoberts that after being dismissed from his job in England due to his drinking, he went to Australia and joined the Army while intoxicated. MacRoberts offers to obtain a transfer for the older man, whom he still calls "sir," but Bartlett insists on staying to prove that he is not a coward. During the day, the men dig foxholes and prepare for an upcoming attack by Rommel's tanks, which the general hopes will be annihilated by White's artillery. During a sandstorm, it appears that the tanks will not enter the perimeter where the general predicted, but at the last minute, they change course and head directly over MacRoberts' covered men. The German infantry follows the tanks and engages the Australians in a fierce battle, during which one of their officers, Capt. Currie, is wounded. Lt. Harry Carstairs abandons his vital post to retrieve Currie, although too late to save his life, and after the Germans retreat, an infuriated MacRoberts vows to have Carstairs court-martialed for disobeying orders. Although Sgt. Blue Smith tries to defend MacRoberts, who is now the company's commander, other soldiers grumble that he got Currie killed and should not be so hard on Carstairs. Bartlett then discusses Carstairs with MacRoberts and pleads for leniency, but MacRoberts insists that he cannot allow sentiment to interfere, otherwise he will not be an effective leader. When MacRoberts goes to headquarters, however, he asks the general to tear up the court-martial request, and both he and Carstairs receive field promotions. The general then outlines a plan to erode the Germans' confidence by making small commando raids every night. Even though their casualties are high, as May and Jun pass, MacRoberts' commando patrols exact a toll on the German offensives. One day, after learning the location of a German underground ammunition dump, the general suspects that Rommel may be planning another big push, but the dump is too far away to be attacked during a single nighttime raid. Deciding to use captured Italian trucks as camouflage, the general asks for a company to volunteer, and MacRoberts, knowing his men are sick of two months of being shelled, volunteers them. MacRoberts, who has made Bartlett his clerk in order to protect him, refuses his request to accompany the patrol, then sets out with three trucks loaded with men. During the attack on the German camp, the men fight fiercely and succeed in wiring a bomb to the dump, but before it can be detonated, the soldier in charge is killed. Both MacRoberts and Carstairs leap off their departing truck to detonate the charge, but Carstairs does not survive the blast. The wounded MacRoberts is captured, and while he is being examined in a medical tent, Rommel, who has also been wounded, enters. Although he is respectful of Rommel's superior rank, MacRoberts defiantly states that he will never control the Suez without first capturing Tobruk, which the Allies have held against all odds. Rommel is bemused by the younger man's brashness and orders that he be treated well. Later, as the prisoners are being transported, their trucks are attacked, and MacRoberts and Smith, who was also captured, escape. After an exhausting walk through the desert, the pair reaches camp and joins the fight again. Although Tobruk has been subjected to prolonged attacks by the Luftwaffe and Rommel's artillery and infantry, the Australians, now nicknamed "the desert rats" for their tenacity and foxholes, have held the town for eight months rather than the originally ordered two months. In November, the general tells his officers that the relief column, led by Gen. Claude Auchinleck is headed for Tobruk, and that they need a company to hold a key location, the Ed Duda hill, which overlooks the road on which Auchinleck is traveling. The general assigns MacRoberts' men, ordering them to hold the hill for three days, and as they march, the men grumble about MacRoberts "volunteering" them for another dangerous assignment. Although the men learn that they were chosen because they have become the best-trained and most efficient company in Tobruk, the knowledge is little comfort as the three days stretch into nine. On the morning of the ninth day, fearing that the men can take no more, MacRoberts orders a retreat, although Bartlett begs him to ask the men to stick with it until Auchinleck arrives. The men refuse to leave, despite MacRoberts' orders, and Bartlett proves his own dedication by taking the dangerous forward gunner's position. Just as the Germans begin what would be a deadly assault, the Australians hear bagpipes announcing the arrival of Auchinleck's troops. After a hard-won 242 days, the Allies have held Tobruk and broken Rommel's hold on North Africa. 

Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.  
Distribution Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.  
Director: Robert Wise (Dir)
  J. Richard Maybery (Asst dir)
Producer: Robert L. Jacks (Prod)
Writer: Richard Murphy (Wrt)
Photography: Lucien Ballard (Dir of photog)
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler (Art dir)
  Addison Hehr (Art dir)
Film Editor: Barbara McLean (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Fred J. Rode (Set dec)
Costumes: Charles LeMaire (Ward dir)
Music: Alfred Newman (Mus dir)
  Leigh Harline (Mus)
  Edward Powell (Orch)
Sound: Alfred Bruzlin (Sd)
  Roger Heman (Sd)
Special Effects: Ray Kellogg (Spec photog eff)
Make Up: Ben Nye (Makeup artist)
Production Misc: George Aclund (Lt Tech adv)
Country: United States
Language: English

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. 6/5/1953 dd/mm/yyyy LP2605

PCA NO: 16243
Physical Properties: Sd: Western Electric Recording
  b&w:

 
Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: World War II
 
Subjects (Major): Combat
  Germany. Army. Afrika Korps
  Great Britain. Army
  Officers (Military)
  General Erwin Rommel
  Tobruk (Libya)
  World War II
 
Subjects (Minor): Alcoholics
  Australians
  Class distinction
  Courts-martial and courts of inquiry
  Cowardice
  Deserts
  Duty
  English
  Escapes
  Explosions
  Guerrilla warfare
  Military discipline
  Prisoners of war
  Schoolteachers
  Soldiers
  Tank warfare
  Wounds and injuries

Note: This film is very loosely based on the 1941--1942 battles surrounding Tobruk, Libya, which was being defended by British and Australian troops against the German Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The film does distort actual events, timelines and strategies, however. A May 1952 LAHE news item reported that Henry Hathaway would direct the picture, with Richard Boone set for the cast. An Apr 1952 LAEx article announced that Gen. Claude Auchinleck would be acting as a technical advisor on the picture, but the extent of his contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. HR news items include Jerry Martin and Bela Kovac in the cast, but their appearance in the released picture has not been confirmed. A HR news item also includes Willis Bouchey in the cast, but he was not seen in the viewed print. As noted by HR news items, the film was partially shot on location in Borrego Springs, CA.
       As numerous contemporary sources pointed out, The Desert Rats was a "follow-up" to the 1952 Twentieth Century-Fox production The Desert Fox , which received widespread criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of Rommel (see above). The Var reviewer called the 1953 film a "sort of antidote to the previous film's glorification" of Rommel, and the NYT critic termed The Desert Rats "a frank apology for a blunder of two seasons ago." As noted by some sources, Englishman James Mason, who played Rommel in both films, speaks with a heavy German accent in The Desert Rats , whereas in The Desert Fox , he speaks in his normal voice.
       According to a 13 Jan 1954 Var article, although The Desert Fox was well received in Egypt, The Desert Rats was banned from exhibition there, presumably because of anti-British feelings. Richard Murphy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story and Screenplay for his work on The Desert Rats . Actor Chips Rafferty also appeared in an Australian production about "the desert rats," entitled The Rats of Tobruk , which was directed by Charles Chauvel and co-starred Peter Finch. That film was released in Australia in 1944 and in the United States in 1951. In 1967, Universal released Tobruk , which was directed by Arthur Hiller and starred Rock Hudson and George Peppard. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   30 May 1953.   
Daily Variety   6 May 53   p. 3.
Film Daily   11 May 53   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Sep 52   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Nov 52   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Nov 52   p. 7, 15
Hollywood Reporter   1 Dec 52   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Dec 52   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Dec 52   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Dec 52   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   29 Dec 52   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   29 Jan 53   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   6 May 53   p. 3.
Los Angeles Daily News   7 May 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   25 Apr 1952.   
Los Angeles Herald Express   8 May 1952.   
Los Angeles Times   7 May 1953.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   16 May 53   p. 1837.
New York Times   8 May 53   p. 29.
New York Times   9 May 53   p. 13.
New Yorker   16 May 1953.   
Newsweek   25 May 1953.   
Variety   13 May 53   p. 18.
Variety   13 Jan 1954.   

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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