Document & Drama in Desert Victory
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 2, May 1974
- pp. 25-27
- Additional Information
DOCUMENT & DRAMA IN DESERT VICTORY By Peter Rollins Peter Rollins teaches English and Film at the University ofOklahoma at Stillwater He writes regularly on historicalfilms and on the contemporary cinema. Desert Victory (1943) is a "campaign film " which documents the battle between Rommel's desert forces and the United Kingdom's troops for North Africa. The predicament of the British filmmakers (David Macdonald, director, William Allery, music, and T.H. Hodson, narration) interested me greatly. While reporting the documentary "facts" about the successful North African campaign, it was also their assignment to create a dramatic image of war, which would inspire confidence and enthusiasm among the folks back home. Throughout the film, I kept asking myself which will win out, reportage or drama? After the first showing of Desert Victory in the United States, Manny Färber of the New Republic (April 12, 1943) praised it for its relative lack of didacticism. In its understatement, Färber found it especially in contrast with "the Russian documentaries where the heavy hand of moral purpose is always teaching you a lesson." Somewhat familiar with pre-war English documentaries, Färber traced this subtle use of film as film back to John Grierson and his circle, which included Macdonald. Grierson's teams had discovered a hard-earned truth that "emotion and interest in a film have more chance of taking hold when the event is shown at such length that it can speak for itself." (In all fairness to the Russians, it should be added that Farber's strictures against the "Russian films" can legitimately be applied to Frank Capra's extravaganzas in the Why We Fight series which began to appear in 1943.) Desert Victory indeed has the appearance ofrealism. Music is used throughout the film to build suspense between scenes and to accentuate the pace of the drama of the North African campaign, yet it is the "actual" sounds oftrucks, planes, tanks, individual rifle bolts slamming home, or of men digging their holes, that we remember. The intended effect is obvious. Because our attention is fixed on actual sounds rather than a rich orchestration, we, the viewers, more readily identify with the soldiers and airmen on the screen. We do not become distracted by the impressive panorama of massive armies clashing by day and night. Instead, we are always aware that the fighting men on the screen are standing in the breach for us. Desert Victory is surprisingly candid in its portrayal ofthe anxiety and pain of battle. One sequence in particular can stand as a representative for many. First, we see a squad clearing mines from the sand as it advances across the desert. Next, we see that one member ofthe squad has been hit by fragments from an incoming German mortar round. The camera focuses on the crumpled form of the wounded man as he is being cared for by a buddy. Suddenly, we see an explosion directly in front ofthe camera, after which the scene comes to an abrupt conclusion. This is the kind of cinematic realism which killed four and wounded six of Macdonald's twenty-six man film crew! How are such stark moments palliated? By tightly paced editing, the film convinces the viewer that the entire British nation from Rita the Riveter to the fallen 25 cameraman is part of a perfectly co-ordinated team. Even in the hottest moments of battle, the editing conveys the impression that communications are perfect, that supporting fires are always intense and on target. Under such conditions, a properly disciplined citizen soldier should be willing to go over the top. Not only is the team working at 100% efficiency, but there is an audience to cheer. For example, after Tobruk is taken, the film carries us back via stock footage of Big Ben, etc., to a munitions factory. In a staged sequence, the girls on the assembly line gossip about the victory that their boys have won. A particularly gaunt middle-aged female turns to a younger and cuter companion on the line. She says with conviction, "that '11 show 'em!" Eyes glassy with pride, her friend responds, "There's more where that came from!" The moral which relieves the...