The movie played a significant role in the creation of the Rommel myth, a view that Rommel was an apolitical, brilliant commander, opposed Nazi policies and was a victim of the Third Reich due to his (now disputed) participation in the 20 July plot against Adolf Hitler.
The film begins with a pre-credit sequence depicting Operation Flipper, a British commando raid whose aim is to assassinate Rommel. It fails.
After the credits, the story is introduced by narrator Michael Rennie, who dubs the voice of then Lieutenant-Colonel Desmond Young, who plays himself in the film. Young is captured and meets Rommel briefly as a prisoner of war; he states that Rommel was not only his enemy at the time, but an enemy of civilisation, and makes it his mission after the war to discover what really happened to Rommel during the final years of his life — at the time that Young wrote his book, it was believed that Rommel had died as a result of the wounds he had suffered when an Allied fighter strafed his staff car.
The film flashbacks to the period of 1941-42, as the British prepare to counterattack Egypt, directed by General Bernard Montgomery: The Germans are defeated at El Alamein in 1942. The situation is made worse when Rommel is ordered by Adolf Hitler (Luther Adler) to stand fast and not retreat, even in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority in men and supplies, but the retreat is allowed. Rommel becomes increasingly disillusioned with Hitler after his pleas to evacuate his men are dismissed. An ailing Rommel is sent back to Germany to recuperate while his beloved Afrika Korps is driven back across North Africa and destroyed.
Rommel is approached while in hospital by an old family friend, Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), with a request that he join a group plotting to overthrow Hitler. Rommel is very hesitant. Strölin departs and immediately afterward evades a Gestapo agent assigned to watch him.
Rommel is placed in charge of defending the Atlantic Wall against the anticipated Allied invasion, though he knows the "wall" offers little protection. When the Allies land in France on 6 June 1944, he and his superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll), are handicapped by Hitler's astrological belief that it is a diversion, with the real invasion to come at the Strait of Dover. As a result, they are denied urgently needed reinforcements, allowing the Allies to secure a beachhead. This is the final straw. Rommel joins the conspiracy. However, when he tries to recruit Rundstedt, the latter excuses himself by stating he is too old for such things, but wishes Rommel well, saying that he will succeed him by morning. (We later hear that Rommel was not appointed his successor.)
Plans are set in motion to remove Hitler. Rommel finally insists on meeting Hitler personally in an effort to persuade him to see reason. Hitler does not heed Rommel's gloomy predictions about the war, screaming that wonder weapons in development will turn the tide. Shortly afterward, Rommel is seriously injured when his car is strafed by an Allied aeroplane. Thus, he is recovering in a hospital when, on 20 July 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Eduard Franz) plants a bomb in Hitler's conference room. It goes off, but the Führer survives. Thousands of suspects are tracked down and executed. An official silence surrounds Rommel.
General Wilhelm Burgdorf (Everett Sloane) is sent by Hitler to present Rommel with a stark choice: be charged with treason, for which the penalty will be excruciating death by garroting, or commit painless suicide. It would be announced that he had died of his previous injuries, he would receive a hero's funeral, his fame preserved and Hitler's regime would avoid scandal. Rommel initially chooses to defend himself in the People's Court, but when Burgdorf hints that Rommel's family would suffer from his decision, he decided to commit suicide to save them. He has the option of receiving a painless drug Burgdorf has brought, and he must do so before evening. He takes leave of his wife Lucie (Jessica Tandy), his aide-de-camp (Richard Boone) and his son Manfred (who suspects nothing wrong), and departs with Burgdorf. As the car is driven away, the film ends with (voice of Michael Rennie) Desmond Young's speculation about Rommel's last thoughts, with brief visual flash-backs of his earlier victories in the Western Desert Campaign from Tobruk through El Alamein, and a final action close-up of Rommel standing in the gun turret of his tank as head of his panzer forces in Africa, with a voice-over tribute uttered in a post-war speech before Parliament by "Nazi Germany's sternest enemy" Winston Churchill, praising the famed Desert Fox.
The movie played a significant role in the Rommel myth, a view that the Field Marshal was an apolitical, brilliant commander and a victim of the Third Reich due to his (now disputed) participation in the 20 July plot against Adolf Hitler. The myth was created with Rommel's participation as a component of Nazi propaganda to praise the Wehrmacht and instill optimism in the German public. Starting in 1941, it was picked up and disseminated in the West by the British press as they sought to explain its continued inability to defeat the Axis forces in North Africa. Following the war, the Western Allies, and particularly the British, depicted Rommel as the "good German" and "our friend Rommel". His reputation for conducting a clean war was used in the interest of the West German rearmament and reconciliation between the former enemies – Britain and the United States on one side and the new Federal Republic on the other.
They portrayed Rommel in a sympathetic way, as a loyal, humane soldier and a firm opponent of Hitler's policies. The movie played up Rommel's disputed role in the conspiracy against Hitler, while omitting Rommel's early association with the dictator. Critical and public reception in the U.S. was muted, but the movie was a success in Britain, along with a less known 1953 movie The Desert Rats, where Mason resumed his portrayal of Rommel.
The movie proved one of the suitable tools to effect the reconciliation among the former enemies. The British popular history focused on the reconstruction of the fighting in that theatre of war, almost of the exclusion of all others. The Desert Fox helped in creating an image of the German Army that would be acceptable to the British public. The film received nearly universally positive reviews in Britain, while protests at the movie theatres broke out in Vienna and Milan. Basil Liddell Hart, who later edited Rommel's war-time writings into the 1953 book The Rommel Papers, watched the movie among the group of high-ranking British officers and reported being "pleasantly surprised".