THE DESERT RATS, a 1953 war picture, pulled quadruple duty. Chiefly, it paid tribute to Australian troops who defended the Libyan port of Tobruk against German armor during WW2. It served to push Fox’s new acquisition from Britain, 27-year-old Richard Burton. It notched another success for director Robert Wise, who earlier in the year delivered another desert-set WW2 story, Destination Gobi. And it helped offset some criticism the studio received for The Desert Fox, their sympathetic 1951 treatment of legendary Erwin Rommel, the leader of the German army that made North Africa a perilous contest for the Allies. In ‘Rats‘, Rommel, again played by James Mason, while shown as capable, is given a harsher tone.
Starting in April, 1941, British forces have their backs against the Mediterranean, ordered to hold for two months against the Nazi onslaught. A division of Australian troops get the job: they dig in and hold out for 242 days. Burton plays an experienced Scottish officer given command of a green battalion of Aussies, which include in their ranks his former schoolmaster (Robert Newton), prone to drink and convinced he’s a coward. Richard Murphy’s screenplay resolves the plot threads. Though it managed to snag an Oscar nomination, the script came in for a good deal of criticism in Australia for misrepresenting how things actually went: par for a Hollywood treatment.
Accuracy critique noted, it’s ably directed by Wise, moving through a trim and efficient 88 minutes, with Lucien Ballard doing a fine job on the cinematography, shooting around Yuma in Arizona and near the Californian desert town of Borrego Springs. Burton shares a good scene with Mason, and the battle action is excitingly staged, kudos to the studio’s sound department. Though it came in 131st place for the year, a gross of $3,000,000 more than covered the $1,320,000 budget.
Michael Rennie narrates. With Robert Douglas, Torin Thatcher, Chips Rafferty, Charles Tingwell, Ben Wright, John Wengraf, Michael Pate, John Alderson, John Fraser.