Written by Richard Bluel
Directed by Henry Hathaway
One thing I’ve always missed in school is history into the twentieth century. All of our American History classes in high school always seemed to run out of time somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, so we never really managed to explore in depth the First or Second World Wars To that end, I’ve become somewhat fascinated with discovering the real truth behind so many of the war movies.
The saying “history is written by the winners” is never more apparent than in this World War II – era film. The British screamed when Hollywood produced the factually incorrect U-571, but I have to wonder what their reaction was to this film which takes one of the more inept moments of the British North African campaign during World War II and turns it into a victory of sorts. Apparently in 1971, it was perfectly all right to stretch the truth to its limit.
This movie takes place in Libya in 1943. After three years of attacks by Rommel’s panzer’s (tanks) the British have been driven back to the point of desperation. The fate of the Mediterranean hangs in the balance. The British come up with a plan to have a commando division get caught in a POW camp, then have Intelligence Officer Captain Foster (Richard Burton) come in and lead them to take out the shore batteries at Tobruk, allowing the British Navy to attack.
Shouldn’t the commandos be able to do this on their own without having to wait for a “leader” to drop in? Well, that’s what happens – while waiting for Foster to arrive, almost all of the Commandos are shipped out to a POW camp in Tunisia with only the ones who fell ill left behind along with a British medical troop. The troop is not trained in fighting and even includes a Quaker who is a conscientious objector.
Can Foster – with the help of four ailing commandos – whip the medical troops into shape and complete the mission?
What do you think?
This film is in the format that was very popular for war movies for a very long time. Short on facts, and long on being able to cheer for our boys “over there”, it twisted the facts as needed and rarely made sense if you really thought about it. This was a vehicle to showcase Richard Burton and his acting talent.
And that’s a shame, because the actual Raid on Rommel would really be a presentation of a good idea gone bad due to a variety of reasons – poor planning, weather, bad luck.
The story in the film, however, actually has me sympathizing with the Germans at times. Is it perfectly okay for the British officers to throw out the Geneva convention and treat prisoners any way they want because we see them as “the good guys”? That is the message given here when Foster wants to kill the Germans after the medicos and commandos manage to overtake their German guards. Instead, he leaves them to rot in the desert with no uniforms and no supplies. This is after the Germans took care of the prisoners and got them medical care they needed, rather than leaving them to die.
Viewers are also expected to believe that this small band of pseudo-warriors can manage to infiltrate Rommel’s camp with two panzer divisions and take out his fuel depot on the way to Tobruk. Again, the Germans take care of the POW’s who they are falsely led to believe have typhus. It is a suspension of disbelief that makes the Nazis look as inept as those in Hogan’s Heroes.
It is a problem that the lines are blurred too much here while at the same time it has the feeling of a propaganda film leading us to cheer wildly for the troops. Reading up on the history of the North African campaign against Rommel for this review, it deserves much better treatment. One of the most difficult chores of the Second World War was keeping Rommel from getting to the Suez Canal.
Burton’s acting is terrible in this as well, and this is a problem since he virtually carries the film. He doesn’t seem to believe in his part (no wonder) and this carries through in his performance. I never once felt like I was watching an actual Captain Foster, but rather was watching someone portray Captain Foster – he never really becomes the role.
There are also problems with the film itself. There are no subtitles; even in closed-caption mode it will say “speaking German” or “Woman speaking Italian”. This makes it terribly difficult to understand exactly what’s going on. Also, there are many times when it’s hard to tell when they are speaking in German versus speaking English with a German accent.
The restoration to DVD was not great. After being transferred from film, it is obvious no one bothered to digitally “clean up” the picture – “dots” still appear at various times through the picture. The images are not crisp & clean and vary in quality during the movie. Again, as I was researching for I learned that a great deal of the footage for the battle sequences comes from the 1966 movie Tobruk. This explains the variations in quality of picture within the movie itself. There are scenes which are supposed to take place in the dark and which are hard to see on television in the daytime. If you are going to attempt to view it, do so in a dark room.
The soundtrack is that of a typical war movie. Lots of percussion and horns, but nothing spectacular to speak of.
The actual Raid on Rommel took place in 1941. Beginning on the night of November 14th, 1941 two British submarines – HMS TORBAY and HMS TALISMAN approached the shores of the northern most part of Cyrenaica. In the rough seas a much smaller than planned raiding party of commandos managed to land ashore. The group was led by Col. Keyes and was largely composed of the members of the LRDG, SAS and SBS. Their first objective – Rommel’s HQ in Beda Littoria, second – Italian HQ in Cyrene, third Italian Intelligence Office in Appolonia, and finally general sabotage actions in the Axis rear. Due to an astonishing amount of bad luck the whole operation ended in fiasco. Already under-strength due to weather conditions during landing, they managed to attack Rommel’s villa on the night of November 17th.(Keyes died during the assault, Rommel was meanwhile somewhere else), from that point onwards the group was being pursued by both Italian and DAK patrols as well as by pro-Axis Libyans. In ensuing skirmishes most of the raid members were either shot or captured. Out of 59 men that left for that mission only the overall commander Col.Laycock and Sgt. Terry survived after dodging the enemy for 41 days in the hills of Cyrenaica. This was the “only” official “Raid on Rommel” during the North African campaign.***
I would have preferred a film to depict this actual event – celebrating heroism even in the face of defeat. Our soldiers have always given their all for what they believe in, and follow orders that don’t make sense and may sometimes lead to bad results. That does not take away from their bravery in the face of unbelievable odds or poor decision-making by those in power. We have seen this time and time again when our troops give everything to protect us and take care of us, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.
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