September 1942. A Canadian soldier named Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) has been taken prisoner by the Italians and is being shipped to occupied France.
At Algiers, he is kidnapped and loaded onto a German plane. Believing he has been taken by the Nazis, Craig stolidly refuses an offer of inflight hot chocolate from the suave Captain Bergman (George Peppard) who says he’s from the “Special Identification Group. German Jews serving with the British.”
The SIG – whose full name is disputed with confusion among historians about whether the “I” stood for interrogation, identification or intelligence – was real.
Bergman and Craig arrive at a desert camp. In charge is British Colonel Harker (Nigel Green) whose madcap plan is to have the SIG disguise themselves as Nazis and drive across “800 miles of the worst desert the Sahara has to offer, right into the back door of Tobruk” with a group of supposed British prisoners who, on reaching Tobruk, will join them in attacking Rommel’s major fuel depot to cripple his Afrika Korps tank units.
This might sound far-fetched, but it’s more or less true. The real SIG had German weapons, chocolates and cigarettes. They even carried love letters from fictitious wives in Germany, composed by an SIG man, complete with forged German stamps and frankings.
“Taking orders from a ruddy Kraut!” exclaims a British sergeant-major, who is obliged to serve under Bergman and has sort of missed the point. “What’s this bleeding war coming to?”
As a film, Tobruk is unbalanced. An overplotted, if quite well written, first half gives way to a lengthy and underplotted battle sequence at Tobruk which is too long, loses the narrative thread, and deviates substantially from the real outcome of the SIG’s operation.
They blow up so much expensive stuff, it looks like it cost almost as much as the actual war. The film’s special effects – by Howard A Anderson and Albert Whitlock – earned its only Oscar nomination (which it lost to Doctor Dolittle).
The film was shot in Arizona (Yuma, Tucson & Mojave Desert) and Imperial County, California. In 1971, Universal Pictures brazenly reused much of the footage from Tobruk in the Richard Burton B-movie Raid on Rommel.
Maj. Donald Craig
Sgt. Maj. Tyne