Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant jumped at the chance to review Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory, a war-themed movie that
has become as difficult to see as Wind Across the Everglades. Sadly, it's not the masterpiece
I had been told to expect but a slightly muddled "lost patrol" desert trek with characters that debate
the nature of manly subjects like bravery and cowardice. The performance of Richard Burton's conflicted
officer is excellent, but miscasting in two other leading roles almost sinks the picture.
On the plus side, the movie is presented in its full CinemaScope width, and restored by a full
two reels to 102 minutes. The original 82-minute American cut must have been a total waste of time.
General Patterson (Anthony Bushell) gives a tough commando job to two officers
untried in battle. Major Brand (Curd Jürgens) is upset to find that Captain Leith (Richard
Burton) once had a relationships with his wife, Jane Brand (Ruth Roman). The raid on Bengazi
goes well but the survivors have to walk out when their expected camel guides are murdered.
That's when Brand and Leith begin to get on one another's nerves, with bickering about cowardice and
Bitter Victory is a clever low-budget war film that would seem a perfect assignment for
Nicholas Ray. A suicide mission behind German lines gets lucky and withdraws with minimal casualties,
only for inner tensions to surface between its poorly-paired leaders. The film still has a high critical
reputation because of the the adulation heaped on Ray (and Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich and
Richard Brooks) by the Cahiers du cinema crowd, a status maintained by infrequent
screenings. But however interesting Bitter Victory may be in terms of Ray's career, it's
a confused and unsatisfying picture, not another The Lusty Men or
In a Lonely Place.
Frustrated by studio interference in Hollywood, Nicholas Ray hoped that a European production
would give him the creative freedom he craved. Such was not to happen with his French producer. Ray
ws given a better than average budget to shoot in Libya (next to neighboring Algeria, where the
French were entangled in a colonial war) but the producer controlled script and casting to the
detriment of the movie. The story is thoroughly detailed in Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray career biography
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey.
The producer first gave the book author René Hardy the right to veto any changes to his
basic plotline. Ray worked with the author and Gavin Lambert while the producer assembled a fine
technical crew in Paris. But the producer also hired German actor Curd Jürgens, then off a
series of successes, to play a British officer. To justify his accent, Jürgens's Major is
established as a Boer from South Africa, but the obviously German actor is still a glaring casting
mistake. He was also incapable of giving more than a surface performance, and according to
Eisenschitz resisted attempts to be directed. The same could be said for Ruth Roman, the third
side of the lame romantic triangle held over from the book. Ray had wanted to use Moira Shearer for
the Major's wife, Richard Burton for the Major, and Montgomery Clift for the Captain. The producer
picked the icy Ruth Roman because he thought she carried star power with the American audience.
Writer Gavin Lambert was then told he had to function as the producer's spy on location in Libya, and was
fired when he refused. Fearing that Ray was drinking (true), gambling (true) and doing forbidden
rewriting on location, the producer hired Paul Gallico to counter-rewrite pages from afar, often sending
down replacements for scenes that had already been shot. Ray ignored the revisions. One was reportedly the
ludicrous idea of having Richard Burton be alerted to the presence of a scorpion because he can
hear it scuttling along on the desert sand.
Both the original story and Ray's mindset envisioned Curd Jürgens' character Brand as an
unequivocal bad guy, repeatedly trying to help Richard Burton's character Leith get killed in the
retreat from Bengazi. Leith is already a confused Nicholas Ray surrogate character who could easily
be expected to shrug and say "I'm a stranger here myself" about most situations. Leith harps on Brand's
inflexible attitude and his apparent cowardice during the raid, but admits to having his own
perverse death wish. Leith also openly acts as if Brand's wife is already his for the taking. So
who's surprised when Brand volunteers Leith for the most dangerous jobs, asks him to stay behind
with some wounded Germans, and finally watches hopefully while a deadly scorpion crawls up Leith's
trouser leg? 1
To cater to Curd Jürgens' new popularity, the producer tried to soften the
Brand character. Although Ray controlled the cutting, he went along with most of the changes. Brand no
longer orders Leith to stay behind - Leith instead volunteers. When the scorpion attacks, we cut
between its progress and Brand's concern, without any definite sign that he's hoping Leith will be
stung. Ray even cuts to Leith's best friend Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin), who is watching but
sees nothing. This makes Mekrane's later knife attack on Brand seem like a non-sequitir (and
badly edited, watch closely). Finally, in a sudden sandstorm we can't tell what's happening, and
don't know if a certain character dies trying to save another, or just expires from his wounds.
The original story was supposed to end in a cynical mess. The mission is ruined when key documents
are burned, and Brand loses his wife but gets a medal to make the mission appear to be a success.
Ray's final scene instead saves the documents and makes the mission a real success. Brand is allowed
the anti-heroic gesture of pinning his medal to a practice dummy, one of the lines of dummies that
are obvious symbols of the "hollow uniforms" that Leith condemned. We are left in utter confusion as
to whether or not Brand is a louse or an unfairly-judged officer.
The preachy Bitter Victory shares qualities with Robert Rossen's later They Came to
Cordura. The principal characters make 'meaningful' position speeches, drowning what could be
a simple action story with thematic overtones. The similarly plotted Andre de Toth film Play Dirty
with Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport is a far more successful assessment of military cynicism.
There are a few vistas and Arab ruins that could only shot on location in Africa, but most of
Bitter Victory looks as though it could have been filmed on a sandy French beach. The location
must have gobbled up the production money, because the airplanes and tank on the DVD cover illustration
never appear. What we do see are some atmospheric streets in Tripoli that might be a studio set, a few
German vehicles and exactly one camel.
The rest of the drama is created by good character acting. Richard Burton's Berber friend is played by
Raymond Pellegrin, who once played Napoleon for Sacha Guitry. Nigel Green is the standout among the
soldiers, doing a perplexing insane act to show his contempt for Curd Jürgens' incompetence. Getting
substantial screen time as another member of the patrol is Christopher Lee, soon to become a horror
sensation at Hammer.
The sad aspect of all this is that Bitter Victory is the film that Ray's biographer marks as the
director's career downturn. Eisenschitz stresses that Bitter Victory's
producer spread the word about Ray's drunkenness and lack of control, but doesn't deny that it was
true. Wind Across the Everglades and The Savage Innocents would be more compromised
personal films, followed by gigantic productions assembled in large part by second unit directors:
King of Kings, Fifty-Five Days at Peking.
Sony Pictures' DVD of Bitter Victory is presented in a solid enhanced transfer in B&W 'Scope
and looks and sounds fine. There is a closed-caption emblem on the packaging but the disc has no
subtitles, English or otherwise; I remember when Columbia discs routinely had five or six subtitle
tracks, minimum. The trailer selection is the same war-related stack lately seen on other Columbia discs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bitter Victory rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2005
1. I would add to the general story
confusion the inescapable audience expectation that the British patrol will finally notice Brand's accent and
discover he's a German!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson