When I have no film in mind for Movie Monday, my thoughts turn toward that genre which I call, in my mind, “World Bore Two,” that set of worthy, more-or-less straight war films that the studios churned out throughout the 50s and 60s and on into the 70s. They go hand in hand with the countless paperback war memoirs that seem to survive for the period — I must have read a couple of dozen, although I couldn’t tell you anything about except that one of them was by Mark Clark and one of them was called Horio You Next Die, which should tell you something about the general standard.
What was I talking about? Right, Rommel. So, this film is not like that, a fact I think may be because it was made so early? I mean, it has a lot of wartime newsreel footage in it, but other than that and a sort of gratuitous action scene thrown in pre-credtis, there isn’t a whole lot of actual fighting — it’s mostly Rommel, his family and other various German types standing around talking about what to do about Hitler.
I was going to talk about the whole cult of Rommel — the great military genius and the only German general it was/is OK to feel good about liking (the only famous one, anyway). This film is obviously a big part of it — Rommel is portrayed as a principled sort of character, whose secondary virtues of loyalty and detached professionalism delay expressing primary virtues until it is, tragically, too late. I think the proximity of this film to the war might account for the weird narrative structure — we never actually see Rommel being this great general, but then perhaps audiences in ’51 didn’t have to. Also, of course, this film is an adaptation of Desmond Young’s book, which is mainly concerned with Rommel’s death.
Young actually plays himself in the film, something I only found out when I looked it up afterward. This explains two things that struck me as strange at the time: first, why Young is so goofy-looking when everyone else in the film is your basic handsome actor type, and second, why Young’s voice completely changes from his on-screen appearance to his role as voiceover narrator.
Um … what else? The cult of Rommel in general. I think … I think it’s telling that the phrase “magnificent bastard” was coined to describe Rommel, although the film doesn’t particularly portray him as a bastard. But we have a tendency to respect people who are good at their jobs, and there is or was a certain inclination to look for guys on the other side you could respect. It’s probably a bit sad that we have to admire Rommel on the grounds that he wasn’t a complete monster, merely a highly efficient professional supporting a complete monster.
Mind you, one of the interesting things is that the film addresses that — the narrator calls Rommel “the enemy of democracy and civilisation,” or words to that effect, and yet the film closes with words about how chivalrous he was — again, the only example of this we see in the film is Rommel not violating the rules of warfare; this is supposed to be an example of his particular chivalry, I guess? But that was the opinion of him at the time — and given the sadism and indifference displayed by most of the combatants — and given the pressures on Rommel to be as much of an asshole as his peers — I guess it’s something.
As for the story of Rommel’s death, I think everyone is more or less aware of it at this point, although I’m sure that when Young’s book came out in 1950 it was a bit shocking.
I was surprisingly gripped by this film, which I was not expecting to be. I continue to have my doubts about the whole Rommel thing, but that’s life.
I found the cheerful playing of The Caisson Song and similar jaunty military tunes over footage of tonnes and tonnes of bombs blowing the landscape beneath them to smithereens — actual footage of that actually happening — kind of jarring.
Next week I promise I’ll try to find something I can really seethe and rage about.