Sometimes you discover a minor character who embodies the soul of a movie.
The 1951 WWII bio-pic The Desert Fox has a perfect example of such a character, as portrayed by British actor Leo G. Carroll.
The Desert Fox is the story of famed German General Erwin Rommel, who pummelled Allied forces in North Africa before transferring to Western Europe to prepare against the D-Day invasion. James Mason plays Rommel, a sympathetic man who’s a curious mix of strategic logic and unquestioning devotion.
As the film opens, we see Rommel is at the peak of his military success in North Africa. But his troops lack equipment and fuel because these items are being saved for the higher-priority Russian front. A frustrated Rommel does not blame Hitler for this mismanagement; he is convinced a virtuous Fuhrer is being led astray by imbeciles in Berlin.
Nevertheless, there are those who try to convince Rommel that Hitler is the reason for the problems. For example, Cedric Hardwicke is Karl Strölin, a man who tests Rommel’s views re: the function of a soldier versus the duty of a soldier. There is also Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Carroll), the barometric character in this film.
Von Rundstedt is a weary figure who is no longer surprised at incompetence or stupidity. He has no illusions about the outcome of the war or the state of politics in Berlin, to which he slyly alludes with caustic wit. (He refers to Hitler as “the bohemian general”, and warns Rommel that he’ll be under surveillance by “friends of the management”.)
Undoubtedly, von Rundstedt’s most meaningful scene is his last. He and Rommel are in a fortified situation room near the west coast of France. Von Rundstedt is D-O-N-E, meaning he’s done with inept leadership and self-delusion and killing. He tells Rommel that Adolf Hitler does not actually believe there will be a large-scale Allied invasion of continental Europe.
In that moment, the whole of WWII unfurls before us like a banner. Here is the actor Carroll, as von Rundstedt, clad in the costume of a once-great army that shocked the world with dazzling military prowess. But now, in its place, stands an isolated Field Marshal with the pallid demeanour of a prisoner of war.
It’s over for him, and for Germany. There’s no more conquering to be had.
The phone rings; it’s Berlin requesting updates, and they’d better be good. Von Rundstedt gamely tries to persuade his superiors to station more troops near the beaches where he (correctly) assumes the Allies will land. When he is asked for another suggestion, he snaps in frustration and his words are like gunfire: “Make peace, you idiot!”
We dare not believe the consequences of those four sharply-spoken words. Von Rundstedt calmly places the receiver in the cradle, as though he had just spoken to his adjunct about a routine errand. He picks up his hat, drapes his coat over his arm, and tells Rommel that within 24 hours he will be named his successor.
Carroll exits the scene and is gone. But he’s not just gone from the scene, he’s gone from Mason, from the movie, from us. “Come back!” we want to cry, but it’s too late. His character has just told Berlin to surrender. There’s no rebounding from that.
Now the movie feels small and narrow without Carroll; his abrupt disappearance weighs on us and follows us from behind. For the first time, we feel actual despair and a little panicked.
The Desert Fox is an absorbing examination of war and deception, and the collapse of a military empire. Leo G. Carroll, in his brief scenes, underscores this tale brilliantly.
The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel starring James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1951, B&W, 88 mins.