Tobruk (1967) ****

Occasionally ingenious action-packed men-on-a-mission picture that teams reluctant hero Major Craig (Rock Hudson) with Captain Bergman (George Peppard) who heads up a team of Jewish German commandos (i.e good guys). You might think the idea of German-born Jewish commandoes was a dramatic flight of fancy. But, in fact, these guys existed. They were called X-Troop although whether they actually took part in something close to this fictional operation is of course open to question.

Arthur Hiller (Promise Her Anything, 1966) directs with some skill and to increase tension often utilizes silence in Hitchcockian fashion. He meshes innate antagonism between the two principals and stiff-upper-lip British Colonel Harker (Nigel Green), two subplots that have a bearing on the final outcome, and explosive battle scenes. In addition, in supporting roles is a Sgt Major (Jack Watson) unusually solicitous of his troops and a grunt (Norman Rossington) with a fund of one-liners.

Craig is liberated by frogmen from a prison ship and flown into the Sahara on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein to guide a strike force 800 miles across the desert to blow up Rommel’s underground fuel tanks in Tobruk, Bergman’s outfit providing the perfect cover as Germans escorting British prisoners. “It’s suicide,” protests Craig. “It’s orders,” retorts Harker.

Most action pictures get by on action and personality clashes against authority but this is distinguished as well by clever ruses. First off, hemmed in by an Italian tank squadron on one side and the Germans on the other, Harker’s unit fires mortars into each, convincing them to open fire on one another. Craig, on whose topographical skills the unit depends, goes the desert version of off-piste, leading the group through a minefield, personally acting as sweeper with a bayonet as his rudimentary tool, his understanding of how the enemy lays its mines allowing him to virtually explode them all at once. But, ironically, their cover is so complete that they are strafed by a British plane, and equally ironically, have to shoot down one of their own.

Along the way they pick up a stranded father-and-daughter Henry (Liam Redmond) and Heidy Hunt (Cheryl Portman) who are on another mission entirely, to help create a Moslem uprising against the British in Egypt. Their arrival reveals the presence of a traitor in the camp. Naturally, this isn’t the only complication and problems mount as they approach Tobruk and, finding it vastly more populated with German troops than expected, they now, in addition to tackling the virtually impenetrable fuel dumps, have to knock out the city’s radio mast and neutralize the German big guns protecting the beaches.

So it’s basically one dicey situation after another, ingenuity solving problems where sheer force is not enough, and twists all the way to the end.

All the battles are particularly well done, pretty ferocious stuff, flamethrowers especially prominent, but the team are also adept at hijacking tanks, and in another brilliant ruse capturing one without blowing it up. The screenplay by Leo Gordon (The Tower of London, 1962) supplies all the main characters with considerable depth. While Craig isn’t exactly a coward, he is not interested in laying down his life for a cause. Although Harker seems a typical officious British officer, he, too, has surprising depths. But it is Bergman who is given the weightiest part, not just a German seeking revenge against his own countrymen for the treatment of Jews but a man looking to a future when Jews will fight for their own homeland in Israel.  

Hudson had begun his career in action films, mostly of the western variety, before being seduced by the likes of Doris Day and Gina Lollobrigida in romantic comedies and this is a welcome return to tough guy form. George Peppard made it two Germans in a row after The Blue Max (1966) but this is a far more nuanced performance. There are star turns from Nigel Green, Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste, 1966) as Peppard’s sidekick and the aforementioned Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965) and Norman Rossington.

This was pretty much dismissed on initial release as a straightforward gung-ho actioner and one that tipped Rock Hudson’s career in a downward spiral, but I found it both thoughtful and inventive and had much more of an on-the-ground feeling to it, with nothing going according to plan and alternatives quickly need to be found. Under-rated and well worth a look.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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