This movie is not strictly speaking a WW II movie. It is a chronicle of the events leading up to the death of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
James Mason plays Rommel. It opens up with a British submarine off the coast of German occupied North Arica. A platoon of commandoes is landed by rafts to assault the headquarters of the German Afrika Corps. The commandoes storm the building and pour machine gun fire and grenades into the living space. As German reinforcements arrive the British soldiers retreat. One man is too badly wounded to escape. As he is captured, he asks the German soldier, “Did we get him?” And the German soldier scornfully answers in the negative.
The “him” that the Briton meant is Rommel and the suicide mission proclaims the enormous respect that Rommel’s enemies have for his skills in war. But unfortunately for their mission Rommel was at that time being treated in Germany for a case of nasal diphtheria. But before he can recover, the British attack his forces in the second Battle of El Alamein and Rommel is summoned by Hitler back to the desert to ward off this attack. Unfortunately, Berlin only sends Rommel, not tanks, ammunition, men or even fuel to run the tanks they still had. Orders are given to stand and fight to the last man. Rommel disobeys the orders and arranges a tactical retreat to save his men. But exhausted and still sick he is forced to return to hospital in Germany. And his army is defeated and captured by the British and Americans.
Recovering from his illness he is visited by Dr. Karl Strölin (played by Cedric Hardwicke), the mayor of Stuttgart and an old friend of Rommel’s. We learn that many senior officials in Germany have lost faith in Hitler and are looking for a way to remove him from power. Rommel rejects the idea and warns his friend not to discuss this idea with him. He declares himself to be a soldier and not a politician. His friend warns him that a time will come when he will have to face the consequences of being a soldier in Hitler’s army.
Now Rommel is directed to help lead the defense of the French coastline against the expected invasion. The supreme commander of the German forces, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (played by Leo G. Carroll) explains to Rommel that Hitler has taken complete control of the strategy of the invasion defense. He explains that the strategy is being decided based on astrology and that instead of reinforcing the beaches they are concentrating on the coastal cities. When D-Day arrives Berlin refuses to allow troops to redeploy to reinforce Normandy and so the Allies break loose from Normandy and begin their march to the Rhine.
The officers who are planning to assassinate Hitler once again approach Rommel for his support. He tells them he must first attempt one last time to convince Hitler to redeploy his forces to avoid catastrophe. He meets with Hitler but is rebuffed and told to remain in place and fight to the last man. Rommel tells the coup leaders to go ahead with their plan. But before the assassination attempt Rommel is injured when his staff car is strafed by enemy aircraft and crashes. While he is recuperating in a hospital the attempt on Hitler is carried out but he is only injured.
After release from the hospital Rommel is sent home without any military orders and all mention of him disappears from the war effort. One day he is called from Berlin to sat that a deputation would arrive at his home to discuss his future assignment. But instead, when it arrives he is told that an investigation has convicted him of treason and he is given the choice of secretly committing suicide by painless sedative or being garroted. But Rommel says he would prefer to answer the charges in open court to at least make his statement in public. But then the officer adds that if he agrees to take the silent suicide his reputation will be preserved and wife and son will be taken care of. If he decides to go public no such guarantees apply. And so, he goes to his death. The movie ends with the recitation of a speech that Winston Churchill gave honoring Rommel for his courage in risking his life in attempting to eliminate Hitler and thereby save his country from catastrophe.
This is a very unusual movie in that the Second World War is only the backdrop for the dramatic action of the plot. We’re shown a great general, a consummate professional, learning that detaching his duty as a soldier from his responsibilities as a human being is sometimes impossible. He is brought to understand that obeying the orders of a madman cannot fit under his warrior’s code. Mason is usually interesting to watch in a movie and this one is no exception. If nothing else he has one of the most distinctive and commanding voices in the history of cinema. The movie is not highly dramatic. It’s almost understated considering the circumstances and the people involved. I would recommend this movie to students of history and those who enjoy a cerebral movie experience.