The Desert Rats (1953)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - War Drama, Combat Films  |   Release Date - May 8, 1953 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 88 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

The Desert Rats has never had much of a reputation as a movie, mostly because it has always stood in the shadow of the preceding Fox film The Desert Fox. Additionally, it comes from a period in director Robert Wise's career in which, apart from unusual scripts such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, he is perceived as having been locked into conventional film subjects. However, without considering the preceding movie, The Desert Rats turns out to be a very respectable film -- Burton was fresh and unmannered in his acting in those early days, and he responded sympathetically to the well-written part of MacRoberts. Equally important to the film's success -- though overlooked by the critics -- Robert Newton turns in one of his last really solid lead performances, dominating the screen in most of his scenes despite the fact that he hardly ever uses his trademark booming voice; instead, he gives one of the more understated performances of his later career, and one of the most memorable as well. And then there's James Mason, reprising the role of Rommel from The Desert Fox. There are many well-acted scenes throughout the movie; most critics felt that the best scene is 61 minutes in when Burton and Mason's characters confront each other; however, critics ignored a quartet of brilliant scenes between Burton and Newton elsewhere in the movie, which are just as good and every bit as satisfying, particularly their final scene together 78 minutes in, which is also the dramatic pay-off of the picture. There are some structural problems with the movie, to be sure, including an over-reliance on a narrator to bridge extended passages of time, one or two scenes are too studio-bound, and some dramatic moments are inserted too abruptly into the action. But generally this is a satisfying film that even finds room for several exciting action sequences, including the initial German tank attack out of a sand storm on the British position, the British commando raid of a German ammo dump, and a shot of a British plane pursuing and strafing a German truck, seen from the point of view of the back of the truck. Chips Rafferty and several other supporting players also add an authentic Australian presence to the mix.