The Rats of Tobruk is a splendid tale of how young Scottish officer Captain 'Tammy' MacRoberts (Richard Burton) is landed with the chore of heading a mob of Aussie soldiers at Tobruk, and manages to turn this undisciplined loutish lot into heroes.
Yes, it's a film about Australians at war. But somehow, although Australians were the real heroes at Tobruk and in other vital Egyptian campaigns, it's the foreign officers who are credited here for their victories.
The 1953 20th Century Fox movie starts off promisingly, with film composer Alfred Newman (interestingly enough, the uncle of Randy) setting the credits to a very zippy, upbeat pastiche of Waltzing Matilda.
And it can't be denied that director Robert Wise (whose credits include The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Body Snatchers and The Sound of Music) has done a very capable job in this war drama, with a really effective mix of studio shots and actual war footage.
But the whole thing is so patronising. The only two members of this Australian troop allowed to have significant voices are Chips Rafferty, who is doing his usual but very good impersonation of Chips Rafferty, and the young Charles Tingwell, who plays a very affable young Captain who, being an Aussie, is however flawed by foolish impetuous behaviour which sees him always rushing off trying to save his soldiers' lives.
Chips and Bud are the Australian contingent. The real voice of the common man in this Australian troop belongs to the great character-actor Robert Newton.
Yes, it's a total cop-out. Robert isn't playing an Aussie at all. He's playing Tommy Bartlett, one of 'Tammy' MacRoberts' old teachers from his public school. Tommy liked the old turps a bit too much, and decided to consign himself to the 'Colonies', to try to start life all over again.
In a drunken moment in a pub, Bartlett followed a load of Aussies to the enlistment station and signed up to fight. So this middle-aged drunken ex-teacher has gone to war, where he spends all his energy trying to fight his own personal battles against alcoholism and fear.
It's a nice story that is well acted, as you'd expect from the invariably wonderful Robert Newton. But it tells us nothing about the Aussies who really were at the centre of the story of Tobruk.
The whole thing is nicely done, and Richard Burton is totally believable as the stitched-up Scottish officer. And in another fine performance, James Mason delivers a definitive performance as Field Marshall Rommel, reprising his role of just two years earlier in The Desert Fox.
The occasional and uncredited voice-over narration is particularly fine. I thought we were hearing a young Peter Finch. A bit of research shows it was spoken in fact by Michael Rennie.
It's a story of Tobruk, but it's not our Tobruk. Our real-life epic story of valour and comradeship has been shanghaied - we're suddenly the bit-players as Hollywood goes to war in its own unanswerable way.
For a 51 year old black and white movie, this is very good. There is the occasional flecking and the occasional evidence of film-grain, but the tonal gradients are very fine and this is very likely the best presentation we're ever going to see this film given.
It is shown in its proper full-screen Academy ratio. This was the year Cinemascope, the first really commercially successful widescreen process, was introduced, so The Desert Rats would be among the final epic dramas of its type made in the old ratio.
The two-channel Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is clear and crisp. The battle sequences are delivered with good realistic strength, while dialogue is immediate and well delivered.
This is a PAL DVD so there is a four percent lift in audio pitch, and this is, for some reason, particularly evident on this disc. Richard Burton in particular sounds unusually high-pitched - perhaps Mr Bartlett's presence (who Tammy keeps calling Sir) makes Dickie think he's still at school?
I popped the disc into an older DVD player which incorporates a pitch-control function, dropped the pitch a notch, and it came out sounding just fine. If your machine has pitch control (usually associated with karaoke functions), give it a try - a lot of Region 4 DVDs, especially those with a major music ingredient, need pitch adjustment to sound OK.