Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Comparison of the war movies "Tobruk" and "Raid on Rommel"

Neither Arthur Hiller’s “Tobruk” (1967), starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard, nor Henry Hathaway’s “Raid on Rommel” (1971), with Richard Burton, qualify as classic Hollywood war movies. Nevertheless, “Tobruk” (*** OUT OF ****) and “Raid on Rommel” (*** OUT OF ****) rank in the upper middle third of all W.W.II tough-guy actioneers. Each film depicts a desperate Allied commando strike against the Nazi-held, Mediterranean port of Tobruk in 1942. These two war movies have an interesting but not unusual relationship. Producer Harry Tatelman dug the “Tobruk” action footage out of the Universal Studios film vault and integrated it into “Raid on Rommel.” The use of stock footage is not unheard of, and film studios have relied on it to cut costs. The difference with “Raid on Rommel” is it relies almost entirely on “Tobruk” for its action scenes, so much so that certain characters had to match the apparel of their “Tobruk” counterparts. Unlike the more commercially successful “Tobruk,” “Raid on Rommel” suffered the fate of its title character. Six months after its theatrical debut, “Raid on Rommel” showed up on television.

“Tobruk” and “Raid on Rommel” share more than the same action footage. The plots are practically identical. As the more ambitious of the two, “Tobruk” sets higher sights for itself. Sadly, the pretentious commentary about Judaism and violence detracts from the film’s fireball momentum. Indeed, Leo Gordon’s “Tobruk” script weaves messages skillfully into the dialogue, but the characters spend more time snarling than shooting. Hiller and Gordon pile on the subplots as if they were sandbags. Their strategy is shrewd but futile. The filmmakers struggle to avoid telling a predictable story by introducing something new about every 20 minutes. Ultimately, Hiller and Gordon fail to exploit the squabbles among the heroes because the storyline brings in some new danger that sidetracks the drama. “Tobruk” lacks a villain, too, a terrible flaw for any action movie. Action pictures are measured by the villain’s audacity. Challenging villains compel the hero to scale greater heights to triumph over evil. Rock Hudson impersonates an inconsistently written hero. One minute he rejects heroics, and then the next minute he’s leading the fight!

In “Tobruk,” Captain Kurt Bergman (George Peppard of “The A-Team”) heads an elite band of German Jews fighting for the British. They rescue Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) from a French prison and fly the uncooperative Craig from Algiers to Libya. Craig meets old school British Colonel Harker. According to Harker, his commandos have eight days to link up with British naval assault troops to blast Rommel’s fuel bunkers in Tobruk. Before the commandos can rendezvous with the navy, Harker’s men have to spike the harbor guns. “Your primary responsibility,” Colonel Harker (Nigel Green) briefs Craig in “Tobruk,” “is to route our convoy through 800 miles of the worse desert that the Sahara has to offer to the back door of Tobruk.” Disguised as German Africa Korps troops, Bergman’s German Jews escort Colonel Harker’s men, posing as British P.O.W.s, into the port city. Once he hears the plan, Craig grimaces: “It’s suicide.” “It’s orders,” Harker snaps. Moreover, Harker informs Craig that the major’s knowledge of the terrain is the key to the success of the mission.

Commandeered against his wishes to participate in this suicidal mission, Craig shrugs and espouses an anti-heroic posture, “My mother didn’t raise any heroes, colonel.” Violence, bloodshed, explosions, and treachery pave the road to “Tobruk” with considerable excitement. Colonel Harker doesn’t trust Bergman and his German Jews. Six years in Palestine gave Harker a lifelong suspicion of the Jews. The salty colonel represents the old school of the stiff upper lip. Harker irritates Major Craig when Craig charges that the mission is “impossible.” The Gordon script huddles these unhappy characters and tests their mettle in several tight spots. Unfortunately, these episodes serve more to pad out the action than propel it forward.

Rock Hudson’s Major Craig sloughs off his anti-hero attitude not long after he makes his pledge. He helps shoot down an Allied fighter that mistakes the German convoy with the real thing. Craig guides the British through a dangerous minefield, and commandeers a tank with a dummy grenade. As the sacrificial Jew, George Peppard’s sardonic Bergman wears the doomed look of Siegfried. If “Tobruk” were filmed today, Peppard’s smoking would epitomize his brazen attitude about death and risk taking. Sadly, Peppard’s death scene lacks luster; he dies far too easily. Such is not the case with Harker. After surrendering to the Germans, the colonel discovers the identity of a traitor and shoots him. Naturally, the German execute Harker on the spot. Harker’s death scene bursts with old school gallantry.

As a shoot’em up war epic, “Tobruk” more than makes the grade. Director Arthur Hiller is better known for his comedy movies, but he manages to keep the action moving despite the loquacious interludes about violence and Judaism. Several incidents that occur on the way to Tobruk are fodder. The problem here is that only Colonel Harker’s schedule keeps them moving, a flimsy excuse for motivation. The climatic battle on the cliff above the beach near the coastal gun emplacements is first-class war stuff. Veteran movie director Joseph Kane staged these sequences, and they crackle with excitement. Finally, “Tobruk” is more ambitious, but the film’s pretentiousness interferes. The producers assembled too much plot for “Tobruk” and lost sight of the basic drama.

The people who made “Raid on Rommel” contented themselves with less plot and created situations of greater dramatic value. The more satisfying of the two movies, “Raid on Rommel” avoids sermons about Judaism. Every good war movie should deal with the theme of war and its impact on morality, but not to the extent that “Tobruk” spews the familiar cliches. Far more scaled down, “Raid” succeeds because veteran director Henry Hathaway knew how to convert a routine commando mission into an exciting, old-fashioned yarn with heroes and villains.

“Raid on Rommel” opens at dawn in the deserts of Libya. English troops riddle a British half-track with a machine gun. Captain Alec Foster (Richard Burton) disguises himself as a corporal. Watching Richard Burton scowl and snarl is half of the fun of “Raid on Rommel.” Foster watches while the medical staff loads the pale corpses of two British soldiers into the half-track. Foster climbs in and drives off into the desert.

Meanwhile, a German plane lands at a Nazi camp in the desert, and Captain Heinz Schroeder (Karl-Otto Alberty of "Kelly's Heroes") receives orders to evacuate to Tobruk. An incredulous Major Tarkington (Clinton Greyn), the medical officer, complains that moving wounded prisoners into an active war zone violates the Geneva Convention. Schroeder dismisses the objection. The Germans now occupy the port city, and Schroeder assures him that Tobruk is safe. Afterward, Schroeder deals with the obstreperous mistress of an Italian general, Vivi (Danielle DeMetz). She hates Schroeder, the Nazis, and the English, too. She has few romantic notions about men since her Italian general abandoned her. Although she appears distinctly out of place, director Henry Hathaway manages to integrate Vivi into the action in a useful way unlike the expendable civilian spies in “Tobruk.”

The Germans spot Foster’s half-track veering erratically through the desert. Foster is passed out on the steering wheel when the Germans capture him. Schroeder’s men drag him out of the half-track, and dump him unceremoniously in the sand. Foster acts as if he were unconscious. Tarkington plays along with Foster’s sham. He diagnoses him as suffering from shock and exposure. Later, Foster is furious when he learns that the Fifth Commandos have been afflicted with dysentery and shipped off to a concentration camp. The Fifth Commandos were the guys who he was supposed to lead. The plan called from them to take over the convoy before it reached Tobruk.
Reluctantly, he enlists the aid of the few remaining commandos and Tarkington’s hospital unit to spike the coastal guns at Tobruk. On the road to Tobruk, Foster and Sgt.Maj. Allen MacKenzie (John Colicos) whip these green troops into shape. They force them to jog alongside the transports, rappel off the sides of the trucks, and teach them how to use machine guns, mortars, and a flamethrower. Richard Burton’s presence bolsters this standard issue war movie. He looks cool in a German uniform, and his escapade in the tank at the fuel bunker is memorable.

As Nazi Captain Heinz Schroeder, Karl-Otto Alberty qualifies as the villain. He rubs everybody the wrong way. He takes particular delight at infuriating Vivi. He thrives on war and observes that desert warfare is pure warfare. No women, children, or civilians clutter things up, just soldiers fighting soldiers. Major Tarkington shakes his head in revulsion. He shares none of Schroeder’s sentiments about the glory of war. Finally, Schroeder confirms his villainy when he shoots a Quaker corpsman in the back as the man is nursing Foster’s wounds. Foster empties his pistol into Schroeder. Later, Tarkington crosses swords with Foster on similar incidents. They argue about warfare and its brute nature. Ironically, “Raid on Rommel” is the better of the two films because the filmmakers tell a better story. Director Henry Hathaway of “True Grit” fame streamlined everything in “Raid on Rommel” so that it appeared a part of the plot. No self-respecting W.W. II cinemaphile should deprive himself of the pleasure of watching these two movies. Happily, “Tobruk” and “Raid” are enjoying a second lease on video life.

No comments: