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DESERT RATS(director/writer: Robert Wise; screenwriter: Richard Murphy; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Richard Burton (Capt. ‘Tammy’ MacRoberts), James Mason (Field Marshal Erwin von Rommel), Robert Newton (Tom Bartlett), Robert Douglas (General), Torin Thatcher (Colonel Barney White), Chips Rafferty (Sgt. ‘Blue’ Smith), Charles Tingwell (Lt. Harry Carstairs); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert L. Jacks; 20th Century Fox; 1953)
“Looks just like many other war films that salute the glories of war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Wise’s (“Born to Kill”) black-and-white shot Desert Rats is a compelling sequel to Henry Hathaway’s 1951 The Desert Fox, chronicling its movie history version of the 1941 North African desert campaign during World War II. It plays loose and fancy with the facts, but gets it right who won the campaign and that it took 242 days. Richard Burton plays the pugnacious Brit Captain Tammy MacRoberts, who is battling Rommel’s forces in defense of Tobruk. Burton is the experienced and twice-decorated leader of a green Aussie company, who has been chosen by Colonel White to help the Aussies in their initial skirmish, and proves himself capable in a sand storm German tank attack and as a reward gets a field promotion to lt. colonel and the role of Aussie battalion field commander.

Burton as the imperious disciplinarian, alienates the Aussie detachment by court-martialing their popular Lt. Carstairs over a matter of leaving his post to try and rescue a fellow officer and thereby endangering the rest of the troops in the battlefield. But Burton wisely rescinds the order under the suggestion of the fatherly Pvt. Tom Bartlett (Robert Newton), who is a drunken coward and was Tammy’s favorite school teacher back in good old England. Tom moved to Australia and in a wave of patriotic fever joined the service while drunk in a pub. The main character study is between the tormented older Tom, who wants to prove he’s not a coward and, as expected, will get that chance to be viewed as a battle-tested hero before the final act, and the hard-nosed Burton who melts when the outnumbered tough-as-nails Aussies are willing to die for him in an impossible battle to stop Rommel’s army in Tobruk from advancing to the tactically important Suez Canal.

Wise’s lively war drama has much Burton and only a cameo by Mason as Rommel, revisiting his role in The Desert Fox. It looks just like many other war films that salute the glories of war and tip their helmet to the men of courage, but is easier to handle than most because of the two luminaries Burton and Mason around to recite their dialogue with such skill and enthusiasm.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”