‘Our Friend Rommel’: How Hollywood invented the ‘Good German’

by Professor Patrick Major

Twenty years ago the Polish-American installation artist Piotr Uklański mounted an exhibition simply called ‘The Nazis’ (you can see many of the photographs from the exhibition here). It showed 164 images of Wehrmacht officers in uniform, but on closer inspection viewers saw not historical figures but Hollywood actors, almost none of them German. Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, and even Eric Idle and Michael Palin of Monty Python, were in the line-up. Uklański was making a point that post-war popular culture had fetishised – indeed glamorised – the suited-and-booted Nazi German officer.

Rommel Cairo

A newspaper clipping showing Erich von Stroheim, who in 1943 played Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo. The film later influenced Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). From the author’s collection.

Many of these images were already familiar to me growing up in the 1960s and 70s, when what Italians called the ‘macaroni combat’ film, the equivalent of the spaghetti western, memorably parodied by Quentin Tarantino in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, dominated the TV schedules. These were light on history, but heavy on action. The farcicality of their plots only came home to me aged 14, when watching Where Eagles Dare (1968) with a school exchange partner, Wolfgang, who happened to be German. The national stereotyping was truly cringe-worthy!

Years later, I undertook a research project on movie depictions of Nazi Germany. I was genuinely curious to know where some of these images had originated. A hidden world of film archives opened up, scattered across the United States and Europe, and one film seemed to have left more of a paper trail than any other: Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1951 Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel. One of Hollywood’s first war movies after 1945, it courted controversy by celebrating not an American war hero, but a former enemy.


Rommel with his aides, 1942. From Das Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-785-0287-08.

Rommel has attained almost mythic status. He outfought the British in North Africa against the odds, and embodied the warrior leader for Goebbels’ propaganda machine. British commander Claude Auchinleck even warned troops not to be taken in by the superman image of ‘our friend Rommel’. But it was the bizarre circumstances of his forced suicide following 1944’s bomb plot against Hitler which sealed Rommel’s martyr status (he was denounced in subsequent Gestapo interrogations, and given the choice of death or dishonour.) Posthumously, Rommel could be a ‘good German’ to all concerned: to the Allies in the West as the worthy enemy; to Germans as a patriotic resistance figure. But here was the problem: Rommel had just been on the fringes of resistance, and had only turned against the regime when it started losing the war. Before that he had adulated the Führer. How much of a ‘good German’ was he? Was Hollywood partly responsible for sanitising his memory?

The film archives took me far and wide. Movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s papers in Los Angeles recorded the story conferences which shaped the script. At the University of Boston, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had left a fascinating correspondence with the British author on whose work the film was based: Brigadier Desmond Young, a clubbable ex-officer of the British Eighth Army, who claimed to have met Rommel as a PoW and later befriended his widow and son. The US State Department’s files outside Washington DC revealed a diplomatic corps desperate to keep the film out of West Germany, where it was felt it could upset the Cold War rearmament of the former enemy.

Twentieth Century-Fox studio chief Zanuck was evidently a keen admirer of Rommel, and saw himself engaging in cultural diplomacy through reconciliation, just as 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front had humanised the former German enemy after World War I. But it was also clear that the studio, facing TV competition at home, was anxious to boost the bottom line abroad, specifically in West Germany, where it stood to make $1.25 million. The US State Department disagreed, fearing accusations of glorifying militarism from the Left, but also that the Right might use it to rehabilitate less deserving Wehrmacht generals. A Congressional delegation touring Germany even wired the studio that the ‘Mere fact that US company is releasing film will be seized upon and exploited by neo-Nazis and Commies alike.’

Rommel fox

Leo G. Carroll, as Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, and James Mason as Rommel. Still from The Desert Fox, Hathaway, 1951.

Yet keeping Desert Fox off German screens had to be by gentleman’s agreement, as the government had no formal powers of censorship. Fox agreed to hang fire. Behind the scenes, however, they found interesting work-arounds. For example, subtitles are unpopular in Germany. Foreign films are always dubbed, and so the studio hired German technical advisers to write new, more politically correct dialogue. Switching language options on my DVD, I was astonished to hear Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, German commander in Normandy, saying on the original soundtrack ‘I’d make [the Allies] pay such a price in blood, they’d wish they’d never heard of Germany’; but in the German dub he says ‘If only my hands weren’t so tied, how many human lives I could save whose sacrifice is so completely senseless.’ Quite a difference! The West German film censorship body was still so concerned about even the bowdlerised German print that it sent it for pre-screening to the Verfassungsschutz, the Federal Republic’s version of the FBI, which green-lighted it.

Rommel der Wüstenfuchs duly appeared in West Germany almost a year after its worldwide release, but was in many ways a different film. The next time that you watch a movie, think about all the decisions off-camera (both artistic and political) which have shaped the final product. And if you want to know why Germany’s guilt in Hollywood war movies is often demarcated between ‘bad Germans’ in the SS and ‘good Germans’ in the Army, maybe it has something to do with Desert Fox. If guilt is not black and white, it is at least black and field-grey.

An article by Professor Major on this subject is forthcoming in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

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