sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2012-03-13 02:48 pm

If you can dig deep enough, only your pride gets hurt

I am not going to claim The Desert Rats (1953) is the greatest war film I've ever seen, but I caught two-thirds of it on TCM about a month ago and I was curious enough about the rest to fetch it off Netflix; I was rewarded. It's not really a documentary about the Australian 9th Division at the siege of Tobruk in 1941, although it has a newsreel-like narrator and historical footage is used for both battle scenes and passage-of-time montages throughout; the general outlines of military action may be accurate, but I hesitate to make any claims for the reality of Captain Tammy MacRoberts (Richard Burton) and I am downright dubious about Robert Newton's Tom Bartlett. As a matter of fact, the internet tells me that the real-life Desert Rats were the British 7th Armoured Division, while the Australians called themselves the Rats of Tobruk. I assume the name was glossed over to chime with The Desert Fox (1951), the touchingly positive biopic of Erwin Rommel to which this film acts as a kind of thematic sequel. (James Mason reprises his role, speaking German this time.) That said, it's surprisingly low-key and snapshot for a 1950's WWII picture, with many fewer speeches than the genre usually calls for and some nice gritty touches, including the simple fact that after eight months in foxholes in the desert, everybody looks like hell.1

It is also a war film that does not subscribe to the trope of death-by-redemption, which is immensely refreshing, especially when one of your leads is a stiff-necked British officer trying to prove himself to a company of raw Australians and the other a drunken ex-schoolmaster who can't even stand to hear the guns go off. "I suppose the way I get into everything," Bartlett says wryly when his former student wants to know how on earth he ended up in the Australian army without even a commission. "A schoolmaster with the nickname of 'Blind Tom' doesn't last long. I got an idea I might find greener pastures in one of the Dominions. Unfortunately, I picked Australia, where it appears everyone volunteers. I made my usual mistake of being in a pub the day war was declared. And on a wave of beer suds . . ." He's not cut out for the front lines and it's the most obvious thing about him, even before his erudition and his drinking; MacRoberts does his best to protect his old teacher by assigning him more and more clerical duties, but even his fellow-soldiers who like him cannot keep a little contempt out of their voices when they leave him their personal effects to look after, out nightly risking their necks on raids while "Tom's always here, no fear of that." (And Newton is an actor who can do vulnerable, if just with his shoulders and the odd quirk of his brows. He's a scarier Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) than Oliver Reed in Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968) because there are moments when he looks as much of a lost child as Dickens' eponymous orphan, only glowering man-size and taking it all out on Nancy. Bill Walker coming doggedly back from failing to get his jaw broke by Todger Fairmile in Gabriel Pascal's Major Barbara (1941) is funny and sympathetic, the audience's first flash of feeling for a character who was introduced with real, unsentimental violence. I know he'll always be remembered for blustery, Dorset-chewing Long John Silver, but he was so much a subtler actor than the Pastafarians give him credit for.)

The obvious route is for him to cop it carrying off some act of physical courage, as so often happens to self-professed cowards when the chips are down; the fact that the cliché is toyed with and sidestepped halfway through the film only makes it more likely to come true in the finale. His real heroism turns out to lie instead in his tenacity arguing with MacRoberts, whose boyhood respect for Bartlett only goes so far when up against his own fears—his responsibility for the men under his command, his consciousness of his unpopularity and his conviction that his failure to earn their trust means the failure of the defense of Tobruk—and the long strain of the siege. "You don't know much about real fear, Tammy," Bartlett tells him seriously in an early scene, and indeed MacRoberts can only keep down his self-doubts under the mask of the professional soldier for so long. Ordered to hold for three days in the face of withering casualties and no relief closer than Cairo, at dawn on the ninth he simply falls apart: "Now let's forget the old school tie nonsense and face reality for once. I'm the English colonel that got their captain killed—that got Carstairs killed. The Pommy officer that's whipped them in and out of these mangy caves for the last nine months. They'd rather see me dead than Rommel . . . I've had it. I can't." He cannot imagine his men will obey him any further; he cannot imagine he won't get them all killed. He refuses to allow himself the opportunity to be proven wrong. And here the film turned in a direction I didn't expect from this setup, because individual heroics have very little to do with the triumphant ending: MacRoberts orders a retreat, but the men won't go. It's an utter break in the chain of command and it's the right decision. They trust themselves where he can't. And quite a lot of rocks fall, but not everybody dies, including the disbelieving MacRoberts and Bartlett who drinks his way through his self-stationed post as forward observer, completely pie-eyed, getting the job done. I like a story where the background characters suddenly remind the protagonists they have lives and decisions, too. I should probably credit Robert Wise, who turns out to be responsible for more films than I'd connected him with—there is apparently a good case for considering him a sort of stealth auteur as opposed to a studio hack. I see the cinematographer was Merle Oberon's husband who invented the Obie light. I don't recognize the screenwriter at all, which means I should leave this line of inquiry before I wind up reading about more films I've never seen and won't be able to unless TCM really likes me.

I am going out to see [ profile] rushthatspeaks and some surprisingly summery sunlight. [edit: never mind, Rush is sick. I'm going to take a walk anyway. I feel like Typhoid Mary.] That was the youngest I've ever seen Richard Burton in a film. Worth your time.

1. The German and Italian in the film is never subtitled, encouraging the sense of realism. It also enables a wonderful scene with MacRoberts—temporarily a prisoner of war—trying to establish whether the man who's about to take a bullet out of his shoulder without anesthetic is really a doctor or just some quack from the ranks. He doesn't speak German; the man doesn't speak English. The question is relayed through the interpreter, who hasn't exactly endeared himself to either man. The possible doctor gives MacRoberts a long, irritated look, pushes up his glasses and snaps something back in a precise, long-suffering tone in which the words "Heidelberg" and "Wien" are clearly distinguishable: and then goes about removing the bullet in a most competent fashion, marred only by the fact that nobody has any real painkillers because it's the middle of North Africa and Rommel's supply lines were never what he kept asking for, thanks ever so, Berlin. It's one of those moments that pass through a whole other story which this film doesn't happen to be about, but nonetheless it's there. The doctor is mending a shirt and humming when the interpreter comes looking for him.

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 07:09 pm (UTC)(link)
Wonderful piece.

I should probably credit Robert Wise, who turns out to be responsible for more films than I'd connected him with—there is apparently a good case for considering him a sort of stealth auteur as opposed to a studio hack.

I'm not very familiar with the work of Robert Wise, but I'm finding myself fascinated by the notion of the stealth auteur. Thanks for giving me something new to think about.

I hope you and [ profile] rushthatspeaks enjoy the sunlight and the day. It's very sunny and unseasonable warm here as well.

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 11:07 pm (UTC)(link)
"Then I probably don't want to sleep again."

Ah. The Haunting is in my top five. One of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. The novel's been sitting in the "to read" heap for a while now.

[identity profile] 2012-03-14 10:12 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks. The film interested me.

Welks. I rather thought so.

(Then I probably don't want to sleep again.)

I hope you'll be well enough rested when you do see it. I can't sleep the now, but I've no such good excuse.

I'd somehow remembered Wise had directed The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still; the former I've seen, for some reason that I think involved being drug into it by friends, and the latter I think I've seen in bits but not the whole way through. I'd no idea he also edited Citizen Kane. That's rather unexpected.

ETA: I'm sorry that Rushthatspeaks was sick, and I hope they'll be feeling better soon. I hope you enjoyed your walk.
Edited 2012-03-14 10:14 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 07:50 pm (UTC)(link)
Because World War II was a tangible presence in my house growing up (- as I imagine it was in yours; Father survived the Blitz), I often find myself gravitating to movies about the period. A Bridge Too Far has recently been taking up space on Netflix (talk about your unredemptive deaths!) and TV's Rat Patrol is something I've been meaning to check out. A pleasant surprise is Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, which resides in its totality on YouTube. An excellent war film, galvanized by intriguing character studies. Go thou and watch!
Edited 2012-03-13 19:51 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 08:00 pm (UTC)(link)
pushes up his glasses and snaps something back in a precise, long-suffering tone in which the words "Heidelberg" and "Wien" are clearly distinguishable:

Why Wein? Googletranslate converts it to English as "wine." I'm guessing it's something else (a university, like Heidelburg?) in context.

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 09:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Headsmack. Duh.

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 09:12 pm (UTC)(link)
From the intertubes in a couple of places:
English subtitles are available as is an optional feature that forces English subtitling for the German language parts of the film only.

So if you want to find out who Tosten is supposed to be...!

[identity profile] 2012-03-13 09:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, if the name is correctly spelled I could probably find the dude. I'm inclined to think it's actually Torsten, and it's driving me bananas.

[identity profile] 2012-03-14 01:32 am (UTC)(link)


I like a story where the background characters suddenly remind the protagonists they have lives and decisions, too.


selidor: (Default)

[personal profile] selidor 2012-03-14 03:51 am (UTC)(link)
I have vague memories of seeing this while quite young: my dad was keen on ensuring I was familiar with the canon of Western war film. The Guns of Navarone (much like its book) and Cockleshell Heroes were the only two that really stuck; all the North African movies merged into a saga of foxholes, sand and desperate runs for fuel supplies.
New Zealand had its first official War Artist appointed in the North African campaign; they've kept the position ever since, as has Australia. His name was Peter McIntyre. To me that's how the North African war always looks: brushed, dusty, an intensity of colour.
selidor: (ti kouka)

[personal profile] selidor 2012-03-14 07:29 am (UTC)(link)
Cockleshell Heroes: British Commandoes paddle 60 miles up a river in kayaks to go after a German shipyard in occupied France. I think it may have been as suspenseful as The Man Who Never Was.

Glad to find you a new artist! If you happen to come across them, I can also recommend his books Peter McIntyre's New Zealand and The Painted Years, which are quite lovely counterbalances to the frequent chocolate-box Tolkien depictions of the NZ landscape.