The Desert Rats

The Desert Rats (1953)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Richard burton, James Mason, Robert Newton
Extras: Trailers

Almost from the moment that fighting began in North Africa during the Second World War, Hollywood started churning out movies set in that desolate yet compelling environment. Something about the swirling desert sands and the rapid style of mechanized warfare captured the public’s fancy and the men who led these battles secured for themselves reputations for skill and valor that continue to this day.

’The Desert Rats’ is a 1953 production directed by Robert Wise that tells the story of one of the fiercest battles in the struggle for North Africa. By April 1941, Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, had led his German Afrika Korps on a seemingly unstoppable rampage across British-held North Africa and seemed poised to conquer Cairo and the vital sealanes at Suez that lay beyond.

But one lone garrison held out at the port city of Tobruk, Libya and it’s the story of the brave men who fought against seemingly impossible odds that this film depicts.

Richard Burton stars as Captain MacRoberts, a British Army officer left to command a rowdy bunch of newly arrived and untested Australian troops. Facing him are the experienced German troops led by General Rommel (James Mason). For eight long months the Allies repel repeated attacks by the Germans while waiting for reinforcements that never seem to arrive.

In recent years historian Stephen Ambrose has written much about the contrast between the supposedly superior, highly disciplined and professional German troops and the democratic, egalitarian citizen soldiers of the Allied powers. ’The Desert Rats’ serves as a fine illustration of this topic as the rowdy and often disrespectful Aussies prove to be more than a match for what were arguably the finest fighters in the German Army.

Performances are all top-notch with an almost understated air that is so lacking in most war movies from this period. Richard Burton is perfect as the officer who must do the impossible and make his disrespectful troops willing to die for him. James Mason reprises his role as Rommel from 1951’s ’The Desert Fox’ and does a commendable job. Lastly, Robert Wise’s direction is skillful as always and the action sequences have a very realistic feel.

’The Desert Rats’ is presented on DVD in its original, black and white <$PS,full frame> format. While the picture is certainly watchable, there’s no denying that the film could have used some restoration as nicks and blemishes are a near constant companion and there are a handful of bad splices and dropped frames as well. Worse yet, there’s a constant wavering effect from beginning to end that looks as though the movie is being viewed through a heat shimmer. Black levels tend to be decent but many of the nighttime scenes do get a bit murky. Film grain is also present but that should come as no surprise.

Audio comes in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Stereo and 2.0 Mono mixes as well as Spanish and French 2.0 Mono dubs. The mono mixes are all flat sounding and suffer from the lack of dynamic range while the lone stereo mix opens things up a bit with a wider front soundstage and even some surround usage. Dialogue is quite clear and there isn’t much distortion so I can’t really imagine these dated elements sounding any better. If you want to have the German dialogue subtitled in English you must select that option from the setup menu as it is not activated by default for some odd reason. There are also English subtitles available for the entire film.

The only extras are trailers for ’The Desert Rats’ along with 10 other Fox war movies.

Sadly, while I really enjoyed ’The Desert Rats,’ the quality of the DVD presentation leaves much to be desired. While I’m willing to forgive a lot when it comes to vintage films, the video elements here are really quite bad and those with a discerning eye will likely be irritated in the extreme. The one saving grace is that this is a bargain priced disc and can be had for around $10. At that price I can still recommend the DVD to fans of World War Two movies.