Richard Burton plays a Scottish officer named MacRoberts who somehow gets put in charge of a group of Australian soldiers at Tobruk during World War II. The Aussies are a rowdy bunch and one guy was already wasted (on Fosters no doubt) and in no condition to do anything except drop his booze on the ground! We’re busting our humps in the Pacific and everywhere else and these dolts are acting like the Libyan desert is South Padre island!
For all of us who are taking this war seriously though, MacRoberts is pretty much a fighting, unfeeling machine, who wears his scowl like those Aussies wear those goofy cowboy hats. He’s ready to lay the smack down on the drunk until he sees that it’s his old school teacher!
Since he was sort of like Mr. Chips or at least like Mork from Dead Poets Society, Mac has a soft spot for his old teacher and gives him a lift in his jeep back to Tobruk.
Tobruk was important because if the Germans, led by General Rommel, can capture it, they can get the Suez and control that part of the world. Luckily for us, we have Richard Burton, those Australians, and some captured Italian guns to hold off the Nazi war machine!
The plan is to draw Rommel’s tanks in deep and then hit them with everything we’ve got! I guess it worked for a bit because Rommel didn’t take over Tobruk and I seem to remember Richard Burton running out to a blown up tank, taking some German lead to his head, hopping inside of it and blasting away at them.
After this first battle, Mac decides to put in for a court-martial against one of the Aussies for disobeying orders. (Damn it, man! You were ordered to let your best friend die!)
This leads to a heart to heart talk with his teacher and convinces Mac not have this guy court-martialed after all. A pretty lame sequence, lacking in any drama or bearing on the plot as a whole. It doesn’t help that they only haul the teacher out about two or three times to try and give Mac life lessons.
The best part of the movie is the middle of it, after they repel Rommel and decide to start being a thorn in his side. The Australians start going on commando raids in the middle of the night, jumping the Nazis where ever they are, knifing them, choking them out, and firing off catchphrases like “Rack off, drongo”!
Still, Mac gets tired of getting shelled on a regular basis, but his superiors don’t know what can be done about it. After all, there isn’t one chance in a hundred that anyone could get behind enemy lines, blow up the ammo dump and escape back to Tobruk. Mac realizes that this is this code for “no one except a grim British officer and his rag tag bunch of Australian wankers that hate him with a passion, but hate the Krauts even more.”
It’s decided that what this war needs is a daring night time raid on Rommel’s base! They all load into three Italian army trucks (these Italian guys must have embarrassed the Germans to no end) and drive on into the German base, kill a bunch of Nazis, rig up some explosives to the ammo dump and wouldn’t you know it, but Mac goes and gets himself shot again as he’s trying to push the plunger on the explosives!
He gets it blown up (he is after all Richard Burton), but gets caught in the process. This leads to an encounter with Rommel in the medical tent. There is some nice byplay between Burton and James Mason and regardless of whether anything like this ever happened during the war, it makes for some manly screen moments.
The last third of the movie is really the least interesting as it involves Mac and his troops being dispatched to a rocky patch of hell where they have to dig in and wait for reinforcements while the Germans bomb the piss out of them.
The Desert Rats is a down and dirty little effort where the bombs are always falling and men are always dying, but there were a lot times I felt like I was watching one of those films in grade school that was more interested in giving me all these details (too many shots of guys drawing on maps) without actually humanizing the participants.
There wasn’t really any story per se in this one. None of the Australians are fleshed out at all and the only scenes that could pass as drama (other than various battle scenes) are those few and unconvincing scenes with the school teacher and Mac. As far as Richard Burton’s character goes, he was often times reduced to standing around barking out orders with a constipated face.
I suppose they figured that the struggle to keep the Desert Fox out of Tobruk was all the drama we needed, but we know ahead of time that they did, so where exactly is the suspense in that?
It’s a no-frills accounting of what went on at Tobruk, but I’d feel more comfortable watching a documentary where I knew things were as depicted as opposed to this film which felt like it was combining the worst aspects of both documentary and film (the dry, detached manner of a documentary with the questionable historical accuracy of the movies), while including the strengths of neither.
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