Wednesday, March 22, 2017

OVP: The Desert Rats (1953)

Film: The Desert Rats (1953)
Stars: Richard Burton, James Mason, Robert Newton, Robert Douglas
Director: Robert Wise
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I used to think that it felt like the only major movies of Classical Hollywood were war films because when I was growing up, westerns and war films were the only ones that my grandfather watched, and were littered across his VHS shelves.  Commanding presences of people like Glenn Ford and Martin Balsam were always amongst his possessions, and displayed proudly on his 12-inch TV screen.  As I grew up, I did realize that for a time, this wasn't an illusion; while war films aren't nearly as omnipresent as they once were (though if you go solely by Academy Awards nominations they might as well be), there was a time when almost every major male actor in Hollywood was getting back into his army fatigues and marching off to heroic battle.

(Spoilers Ahead) This is the case with The Desert Rats, a tiny largely forgotten film about a tiny relatively forgotten chapter of World War II, which starred a young Richard Burton and a fast-emerging James Mason.  The film centers around the battle for Tobruk, a port city in Libya that was a central part of the war campaign in North Africa.  The film shows a British commanding officer Captain MacRoberts (Burton), who is very by-the-book, who must command a battalion of Australian soldiers as they attack Field Marshal Rommel (Mason) to hold the hill and make sure the Germans couldn't attack the Suez Canal.  The film unfolds as one expects, with MacRoberts slowly breaking against his military rigidness, and his men eventually gaining respect for him, and in the process earning victory.

The film itself is pretty slight, and the camerawork shoddy enough for a time it felt like they were filming it as it was a war reel documentary, but there's too much attention paid to MacRoberts' relationship with his former teacher Bartlett (Newton) for that to fly.  The film's best attributes are surely its elaborate and intense battle sequences, with enormous explosions and a number of impressive tank shots.  The film comes most alive during these sequences, if only because of its extraordinary grandness; this is before CGI, so all of this had to have taken place, making it all the more impressive.

The film, however, is not particularly good outside of these moments.  Both Burton and Mason are fine actors who would eventually create some of the screens greatest creations, but here, early in their careers, they don't lend much to what they're doing onscreen, and you don't relate to any of the characters save for the contradictory Bartlett (Newton is best in show here, and pretty much the only real reason to watch).  The fact that the film won its only nomination for Screenplay is ludicrous, as even in 1953 every contrivance of this movie's plot was hackneyed and overdone.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Anyone out there already seen this movie (it's on TV quite regularly)?  If not, share your thoughts on the rather eclectic nominees for Original Screenplay in 1953 (it was very much a year for the adapted category), or your thoughts on Richard Burton & James Mason-any favorite performances?

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