The Desert Rats
The Desert Rats

After James Mason's star turn as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the successful 1951 Fox picture THE DESERT FOX, the studio recast him in the role, hoping for similar results at the box office. They also wanted to
Desert Rats

The Desert Rats

balance the scales by highlighting the Allied point of view, after being accused of portraying Rommel too sympathetically in the earlier film.

Robert Wise enjoyed making this WWII film about the 242-day siege of Tobruk, a Libyan seaport town. In fact, he said it "would be a close second to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL as [his] favorite in the Fox period."* He especially liked working with actor Richard Burton, whose professionalism he admired.

The film is notable for its realistic combat scenes, which were achieved after thorough and meticulous preparation on Wise's part. "I researched a lot, running films of the war in the African desert, studying photographs, striving as much as I could to make it look real."* The film's authentic look is remarkable, considering it was not shot in the North African desert, but in the small town of Borrego Springs, California, just a short drive from Palm Springs.

Synopsis Captain Tammy MacRoberts is a tough British officer who takes over command of the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk in 1941, while the desert fortress is surrounded and hard pressed by Rommel's Africa Corps. You dirty rats!He feels these troops are inferior fighters to British regulars and he is brusque and unfeeling with his men. Among the garrison is Tom Bartlett, his old English teacher at college, a lowly volunteer and a raging alcoholic. Bartlett is the only one who can persuade the relentless MacRoberts to go a bit easy with his men and he soon resumes his hard-bitten ways when finding Bartlett drunk once too often while on duty. MacRoberts leads a commando raid behind enemy lines and is captured. Wounded, he is taken to a German field hospital tent where he meets Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and the two converse in civil tones about the fate of Tobruk. MacRoberts later escapes and is ordered to hold a hill outside Tobruk until the arrival of a British relief force. The Australians valiantly hold off one German attack after another. With ammunition almost gone, his forces depleted, and his hope fled, MacRoberts orders his men to surrender. The Aussies, including Bartlett, refuse to leave their foxholes, insisting upon fighting to the last bayonet. At that moment they hear the bagpipes of the British relief force which comes into view, its tanks roaring forward as the beleaguered troops cheer, and "Waltzing Matilda" is heard triumphantly.

From The Motion Picture Guide

Wise Facts
  • This was only the second American film for Welsh actor Richard Burton; his first was MY COUSIN RACHEL (1952). Academy Award nomination for best story & screenplay.
  • Credits: 88 min  20th-Century Fox Film Corp. Distributed by: 20th-Century Fox Film Corp.;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Robert L. Jacks;  Screenplay by: Richard Murphy;  Edited by: Barbara McLean;  Director of Photography: Lucien Ballard;  Special Photographic Effects by: Ray Kellogg;  Assistant Direction by: J. Richard Mayberry;  Art Direction by: Lyle Wheeler, Addison Hehr;  Set Decoration by: Fred H, Rode;  Music by: Leigh Harline;  Musical Direction by: Alfred Newman;  Orchestration by: Edward B. Powell;  Sound by: Alfred Bruzlin, Roger Heman;  Wardrobe Direction by: Charles Le Maire;  Make-up by: Ben Nye
    James Mason Cast  Richard Burton (Captain MacRoberts), Robert Newton (Bartlett), Robert Douglas (General), Torin Thatcher (Barney), Chips Rafferty (Smith), Charles Tingwell (Lieutenant Carstairs), Charles Davis (Pete), Ben Wright (Mick), James Mason (Rommel), James Lilburn (Communications Man), John O'Malley (Riley), Ray Harden (Hugh), John Alderson (Corporal), Richard Peel (Rusty), Michael Pate (Captain Currie), Frank Pulaski (Major O'Rourke), Charles Keane (Sergeant Donaldson), Pat O'Moore (Jim), Trevor Constable (Ginger), Albert Taylor (Jensen), John Wengraf (German Doctor), Arno Frey (Kramm), Alfred Ziesler (Von Helmholtz), Charles Fitzsimmons (Fire Officer).

    Photo Gallery
    Movie Clips
    Complete Credits


    1. Robert Wise On His Films, p. 115
    2. Robert Wise On His Films, p. 115

    © American Film Institute