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In mid-Apr 1941, during World War II, Germany's Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,
has repeatedly beaten the Allies in the struggle for control of North Africa. Desperate to prevent
Rommel from gaining control of the Suez Canal, the British Army, in retreat and trying to rebuild
its strength, establishes one last stronghold in Tobruk. The British headquarters in Cairo orders
the 9th Australian Division to hold Tobruk for two months, at which time they will be relieved.
The general meets with artillery colonel Barney White and other officers to explain that the
division will have three perimeters of defense: the outlying perimeter of infantry, the second
perimeter of White's artillery, and the inner line of fortifications. The general, needing an
experienced field officer to oversee the green Australian troops assigned to the infantry perimeter,
chooses English officer Capt. Tammy MacRoberts. MacRoberts, a coolly efficient and unemotional officer
who is disliked by the Australians, is surprised to see among their ranks his former schoolmaster,
Tom Bartlett. As the battalion marches to their desert outpost, they are hit by artillery, and the
men resent being pushed on by MacRoberts instead of being allowed to tend to their fallen comrades.
At their encampment, Barlett, an alcoholic, explains to MacRoberts that after being dismissed from
his job in England due to his drinking, he went to Australia and joined the Army while intoxicated.
MacRoberts offers to obtain a transfer for the older man, whom he still calls "sir," but Bartlett
insists on staying to prove that he is not a coward. During the day, the men dig foxholes and prepare
for an upcoming attack by Rommel's tanks, which the general hopes will be annihilated by White's
artillery. During a sandstorm, it appears that the tanks will not enter the perimeter where the
general predicted, but at the last minute, they change course and head directly over MacRoberts'
covered men. The German infantry follows the tanks and engages the Australians in a fierce battle,
during which one of their officers, Capt. Currie, is wounded. Lt. Harry Carstairs abandons his vital
post to retrieve Currie, although too late to save his life, and after the Germans retreat, an
infuriated MacRoberts vows to have Carstairs court-martialed for disobeying orders. Although Sgt.
Blue Smith tries to defend MacRoberts, who is now the company's commander, other soldiers grumble
that he got Currie killed and should not be so hard on Carstairs. Bartlett then discusses Carstairs
with MacRoberts and pleads for leniency, but MacRoberts insists that he cannot allow sentiment to
interfere, otherwise he will not be an effective leader.
When MacRoberts goes to headquarters, however, he asks the general to tear up the court-martial request,
and both he and Carstairs receive field promotions. The general then outlines a plan to erode the Germans'
confidence by making small commando raids every night. Even though their casualties are high, as May
and June pass, MacRoberts' commando patrols exact a toll on the German offensives. One day, after
learning the location of a German underground ammunition dump, the general suspects that Rommel may
be planning another big push, but the dump is too far away to be attacked during a single nighttime
raid. Deciding to use captured Italian trucks as camouflage, the general asks for a company to
volunteer, and MacRoberts, knowing his men are sick of two months of being shelled, volunteers them.
MacRoberts, who has made Bartlett his clerk in order to protect him, refuses his request to accompany
the patrol, then sets out with three trucks loaded with men. During the attack on the German camp,
the men fight fiercely and succeed in wiring a bomb to the dump, but before it can be detonated,
the soldier in charge is killed. MacRoberts leaps off the departing truck to detonate the charge
and Carstairs joins him to provide cover, but as the demolition charges go off, Carstairs is killed.
The wounded MacRoberts is captured, and while he is being examined in a medical tent, Rommel, who has
also been wounded, enters. Although he is respectful of Rommel's superior rank, MacRoberts defiantly
states that he will never control the Suez without first capturing Tobruk, which the Allies have held
against all odds. Rommel is bemused by the younger man's brashness and orders that he be treated well.
Later, as the prisoners are being transported, their trucks are attacked, and MacRoberts and Smith,
who was also captured, escape. After an exhausting walk through the desert, the pair reaches camp and
joins the fight again. Although Tobruk has been subjected to prolonged attacks by the Luftwaffe and
Rommel's artillery and infantry, the Australians, now nicknamed "the desert rats" for their tenacity
and foxholes, have held the town for eight months rather than the originally ordered two months. In
November, the general tells his officers that the relief column, led by Gen. Claude Auchinleck is
headed for Tobruk, and that they need a company to hold a key location, the Ed Duda hill, which
overlooks the road on which Auchinleck is traveling. The general assigns MacRoberts' men, ordering
them to hold the hill for three days, and as they march, the men grumble about MacRoberts
"volunteering" them for another dangerous assignment. Although the men learn that they were chosen
because they have become the best-trained and most efficient company in Tobruk, the knowledge is
little comfort as the three days stretch into nine. On the morning of the ninth day, fearing that
the men can take no more, MacRoberts orders a retreat, although Bartlett begs him to ask the men
to stick with it until Auchinleck arrives. The men refuse to leave, despite MacRoberts' orders,
and Bartlett proves his own dedication by taking the dangerous forward gunner's position. Just as
the Germans begin what would be a deadly assault, the Australians hear bagpipes announcing the
arrival of Auchinleck's troops. After a hard-won 242 days, the Allies have held Tobruk and broken
Rommel's hold on North Africa.
Richard Burton, Robert Newton, Robert Douglas, Torin Thatcher, |
Chips Rafferty, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Year Released - May 1953
Length - 88 minutes
Music Composer: Leigh Harline
Movie Distributed by 20th Century Fox
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