TOBRUK. Universal Pictures, 1967. Rock Hudson, George Peppard, Nigel Green, Guy Stockwell, Jack Watson. Screenwriter: Leo Gordon. Director: Arthur Hiller.

   You have to review the movie that you watched, not the one you wished you’d seen. Such is the case with Arthur Hiller’s Tobruk, a war film helmed by a director best known for his cinematic adaptations of the works of Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon. While it’s a completely solid movie and adheres closes to the tropes of the “North African Second World War desert combat film” sub-genre (I made that up), the plot and dialogue never quite match the unique possibilities offered by the following premise. “A Canadian-British soldier who shuns heroism teams up with an idealistic German-Jewish commando to take destroy the Nazi oil depot in Tobruk, Libya.”

   Sounds like you’d have a good tale to tell, right? How two men from disparate backgrounds must find common ground in order to achieve a greater good that transcends their differences. How one man learns the value of sacrifice and heroism and finds, under the glare of the unforgiving desert sun, what it means to fight a cause worth fighting – and dying – for.

   But no. That’s the film I wish I had seen. Now, there are indeed flashes of potential scattered throughout the movie. There’s a powerful exchange in which Bergman (George Peppard), the German-Jewish commando explains to his Canadian counterpart, Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) what the war effort means to the Jewish people.

   And there’s the mention, too often forgotten today, of how Egyptian officers and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were scheming to team up with the Nazis against the British in Egypt and Palestine. But all of this great material is ultimately wasted as the film bogs itself down in mild, inoffensively didactic lessons about human prejudice.

   Now, you may be asking yourself: why watch Tobruk after everything I just told you? Simple answer: the atmospherics and the combat scenes. Hiller does an exceptional job in staging the latter and gives the viewer a real powerful jolt to the senses.

   There’s the obligatory scene in which our hero (Hudson) attacks Nazis with a flamethrower and there’s also a beautifully crafted scene in which the Allies scare away a band of Arab tribesmen looking to exchange two prisoners for guns. The soundtrack, by Polish composer BronisÅ‚aw Kaper, who also scored Gaslight (1944) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), works seamlessly with this visual material and gives it a gritty, sweaty feeling.