The Desert Rats Film Details
Overview: Richard Burton plays a Scottish Army officer put in charge of a disparate band of ANZAC troops on the perimeter of Tobruk with the German Army doing their best to dislodge them.
Tagline: They crawled their way across the blazing sands of Africa… to turn disaster into victory!
Review: In the decade following the close of World War 2, there seems to have been a need to document on film every significant allied operation (at least, every successful one), to give every hero a movie they could identify with. A worthy aim, but the sheer volume of these pictures meant there was a vast variety in quality and approach. This one was produced at Fox and directed by Robert Wise, who had only recently joined the studio after having cut his teeth in the RKO B-unit. During the 40s RKO was making literally the darkest pictures in Hollywood, and much of that shadowy style seems to have rubbed off on Wise. He and cinematographer Lucien Ballard (who certainly knew a thing or two about shadows, having taken his earliest assignments alongside Josef von Sternberg) have created a war picture which is not exactly noirish in story, but is certainly full noir in looks. The gloomy, undefined edges of the interiors give a feeling of entrapment suitable to the situation of the beleaguered troops. There is little opportunity for darkness in a desert, but the outdoor scenes also carry on that feel of confinement. The landscape is often obscured by smoke or sandstorms. We see silhouettes that could be friend or foe, and glimpse enemies through gun sights. There are few clear shots of the action, more often just mid-shots of the soldiers which make it hard to tell their position in relation to the combat. The impression we get is – quite accurately – that in the heat of battle the ordinary foot soldiers can rarely tell exactly what is going on, whether they are winning or losing, or how to proceed beyond the execution of the latest order. It was things like this – a bit of lateral thinking to give us a feeling for the protagonist’s plight – that Robert Wise was really good at. The post-war period had seen the rise of the UK film industry, and unsurprisingly the best British stars were being poached for Hollywood productions. So here we have Richard Burton, at his most inappropriately theatrical and unshakeably serious (how often have you seen Burton smile?), and yet somehow he is very enjoyable to watch. James Mason had gone in a few short years from dashing male leads to slightly sinister middle-aged types, but he could pull it off, and perhaps even enjoyed villainous roles like this a bit. Speaking of enjoying villainous roles, what have we here? Robert Newton, playing – of all things – an alcoholic ex-schoolteacher. He always showed some potential in his straight roles, but to be honest he is just a bit boring without snarling and eye-rolling. The original music is by ex-Disney intern Leigh Harline (he wrote When You Wish upon a Star, you know). Actually there isn’t very much original music to be heard in the Desert Rats, the score being mostly snippets of Waltzing Matilda, but there is one interesting point about the music. Take a closer look at that opening credits sequence. At one point, you see a soldier with a trumpet pick up the tune. This kind of makes sense – sounding the charge and all that. Then, a shot or two later, a soldier dives into a shell hole and pops back up playing a clarinet! What is going on there? I actually whizzed the tape back and forth a few times to check if any more of the orchestra appears, but sadly they don’t. I would have liked to see Richard Burton come on at the end, playing a trombone. Anyway, enough of that. It’s odd in a way that Hollywood put such a lot of energy into honouring the heroes of the recent combat, because by and large the veterans themselves stayed away from these pictures. The target audience was more often the younger generation who hadn’t been old enough to fight at the time. Grim authenticity was becoming less of a priority (and while the Desert Rats is certainly gritty and respectful it does once or twice strain credibility and historical accuracy), and the anti-war mood had not yet caught on (although this picture is certainly far less gung-ho than was the norm a few years earlier). The most a war picture really needed to be at this point was entertaining, and the Desert Rats is victorious on this front. It is neither deep nor spectacular, but it is a good and easy watch for your eighty-five minutes.
Country: United States
Language: English, German
Duration: 88 min
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Also known as: I topi del deserto,砂漠の鼠,Ökenråttorna,The Desert Rats,Les rats du désert,Ratos do Deserto,Şobolanii deşertului,Ørkenrottene,Çöl fedaileri,Песчаные крысы,Las ratas del desierto,Arouraioi tis erimou,Die Wüstenratten,Szczury pustyni,De woestijnratten,Erämaan rotat,Kommandos se apostoli thanatou,Пустинните плъхове,Sivatagi patkányok,Ørkenrotterne