by Matt Levine
War isn’t just hell in Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory—it’s a vindictive pissing contest enacted by petty, insecure men, desperate to prove their virility to themselves and others. I typically dislike the war-film genre because its protagonists are often the opposite: stoic, masculine heroes who lament the horrors of war while, at the same time, vanquishing their villainous opponents, especially when it’s Allied troops pitted against the Nazis (as it is here). The notion that war can be tidily summarized as a large-scale effort by self-proclaimed defenders to triumph over a pandemic evil—the kind of justification that George W. Bush touted often when the United States initiated its “war on terror” after September 11—reassures us by transforming murder into self-preservation. Bitter Victory reveals that defense as utter fallacy—a theme that’s disturbingly relevant to recent American diplomacy, though at the time of the film’s 1958 release date, Ray was intending to simultaneously mourn the Korean War and condemn the avalanching Cold War with the Soviet Union. Timeless in its seething disgust for the political barbarism perpetrated by battling nations, Bitter Victory isn’t about a war; it’s about war itself, and what fault lines in human nature might be responsible for such cruelty.
April 21 & 22
Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: Paul Graetz
Writers: Nicholas Ray, Gavin Lambert, Rene Hardy (screenplay and novel), Paul Gallico (additional dialogue)
Cinematographer: Michel Kelber
Editor: Leonide Azar
Music: Maurice Le Roux
Cast: Richard Burton, Curd Jürgens, Ruth Roman, Raymond Pellegrin, Anthony Bushell, Alfred Burke, Sean Kelly, Ramon De Larrocha, Christopher Lee, Ronan O’Casey, Fred Matter, Raoul Delfosse, Andrew Crawford, Nigel Green, Harry Landis, Christian Melsen, Sumner Williams
Premiere: August 29, 1957 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 1958
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
A handful of writers translated Rene Hardy’s novel to the screen, emphasizing the animosity between the two main characters, both soldiers of the British Army stationed in Libya during World War II: Major Brand (Curd Jürgens), a deskbound veteran with lofty military ambitions, and Captain Leith (Richard Burton), a Welsh archaeologist and army volunteer with knowledge of Arabic and North Africa. The two men are assigned to infiltrate a Nazi base in Benghazi and retrieve secret documents whose contents the audience never gleans—making the motivation for this particular story, like that of war itself, unnervingly ambiguous. Leith is everything Brand isn’t: young, handsome, cocksure, courageous. The latent insecurity Brand feels in Leith’s presence only intensifies when he discovers that Leith and his wife, a young and sultry Ruth Roman, had an affair long ago; even before they embark on their mission, Brand is hungry to prove to his charismatic subordinate (and, more importantly, to himself) that he wields the power in their relationship.
The platoon’s infiltration of the Nazi base in Benghazi happens early in Bitter Victory. It’s not multinational enmity that provides the conflict in the film; it’s our own individual neuroses, the psychological crises that fuel a more personal antagonism. Brand and Leith, heading a motley assortment of British soldiers (one of which is a deranged “holy fool,” apparently unhinged yet mordantly aware of war’s underlying absurdity), break into the German bunker with relative ease. The only obstacle is a German sentry whom Brand, poised to kill with knife in hand, can only tremble upon encountering; it’s Leith who musters the courage (if it can be called that) to pounce upon the Nazi soldier and stab him to death. From here on, it’s not only Brand’s awareness of his wife’s resurrected lust for Leith that drives him to violently despise the virile Welshman; it’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that Leith, fearless and willing to kill, belongs at the head of a military outfit, while Brand can only be an overambitious poseur.
Brand’s hatred for Leith comes to a head when he commands the Captain to stay behind at the Benghazi base with two lethally-wounded officers, one British and one German—ostensibly for the purpose of nursing them to health and waiting for patrols. Leith accepts coldly, more out of nihilistic resignation than a patriotic sense of duty; Brand assumes he’s indirectly killed his primary professional and sexual competitor. Of course Leith survives, thanks to his knowledge of the Sahara Desert and his friendship with an Arab scout—but not before he mercy-kills the dying German officer and tries to lug his British compatriot to safety, only to realize he’s been carrying a corpse. “I kill the living and save the dead,” Leith mutters despondently; his utter revulsion at human nature suggests he keeps on surviving out of habit, though he greets the inevitability of death with a flippant hopelessness. The surreal morbidity of the scene is entrenched by an unforgettable image in which a bunch of beetles scatter from beneath the German’s writhing corpse—a horrific image of war at its most nightmarish. Richard Burton sometimes overindulges Leith’s brooding misery, but he’s remarkable in this morbid scene—a potent symbol for the kind of abject nihilism that embraces war simply because life is doomed in any case.
It may sound like Brand’s supercilious Major is the villain of this epic desert-set grudge match, especially by the time he sneeringly watches a scorpion give Captain Leith a potentially deadly sting. But the young Captain is no better: he abandoned Jane, the Major’s wife, without a word, simply out of self-loathing and a fear of commitment. The same two impulses lead him to accept such an ill-fated assignment, using this mission (and the war more generally) as a convenient excuse for avoiding a life he leads himself. Many antiwar movies claim to disregard simplistic notions of good and evil, but Bitter Victory really does ignore such constricting labels. Brand and Leith are both understandably human, both repugnantly weak-willed—reminding us that war, so often envisioned (at least by its practitioners) as faceless conflicts, are perpetrated by individuals prone to their own destructive delusions and insecurities.
The very first image of Bitter Victory is an unusual long shot of an army of mannequins, spread throughout the British base in Libya: dummies used for target practice which, as an opening shot, prove almost inscrutable. The implicit metaphor in this shot becomes explicit in the final scene, in which Mrs. Brand discovers the tragic death of her “true love.” Throughout the subsequent scene set in the very same training room, Jane absentmindedly fondles the arm of one of these mannequins—no longer able to rely on the other, flesh-and-blood limb for companionship. Only moments later, another character receives a medal of honor, but the commendation means nothing to him; he’s been made forcefully aware of his own cowardice and jealousy. He spitefully sticks the medal onto the chest of another dummy, a blatant demonstration of his hollow self-loathing. The irony is made overt: though governments may consider the officers and soldiers who carry out their dirty work little more than military pawns, those people themselves—the ones stranded on the battlefield and responsible for heated wartime decisions—are governed by fundamentally flawed psychologies, their impulsive actions dictating the tragic, inexplicable nature of war. As in Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962), a mannequin shrouded in military regalia becomes a potent symbol for the inhumanity of war.
For a film set in North Africa during World War II, it is unfortunate that Bitter Victory has absolutely zero interest in the plight of the Libyans caught between German and British forces in their own country. There is only one Arab character with dialogue in the film—Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin), the helpful scout fated to a plot-thickening demise, played by a French actor whose unkempt beard is meant to denote Middle Eastern exoticism. Then again, the film may be strengthened by its hyper-intense focus on this solitary band of Englishmen: as the vainglorious Brand and Leith wage their vindictive war in the barren Sahara Desert, Bitter Victory comes to resemble an existential myth set outside of history, a clash of titanic wills raging in a merciless desert. The stark, ghostly minimalism of the film may be what prompted Jean-Luc Godard to write, in his review of Bitter Victory, “Nicholas Ray is cinema.”
The words sound hyperbolic, but—as in Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bigger Than Life (1956)—Ray does demonstrate a painterly command over the Cinemascope frame that makes him one of cinema’s (or at least Hollywood’s) undisputed masters. Working with cinematographer Michel Kelber (who also shot films for Ophüls and Renoir), Ray deftly crams an expansive amount of visual material into the rectangular, horizontally-plotted frame—creating a claustrophobic atmosphere where even the limitless expanse of the desert seems frightfully constricting. The extremely low-contrast cinematography achieves a number of desolate, evocative images in which the sky and the sand seem to blur together, turning the frame into an amorphous gray fog through which the characters can only meekly stumble. With the aid of Maurice Le Roux’s melancholy score, Bitter Victory reinforces the tragic inevitability of the characters’ mission—an assignment damned not by international warfare, but by the more metaphysical fallibility of man.
A number of biographies and interviews have attested to the film’s problematic production: the carousel of writers working on the project, the talented cast arbitrarily handed interchangeable roles, Ray’s destructive alcoholism and tempestuous affairs (including one with an 18-year-old Moroccan girl addicted to heroin). Jonathan Rosenbaum’s insightful review compellingly relates Ray’s own psychological flaws with the polar extremes represented by Brand’s and Leith’s characters—one insecure and hopelessly jealous, the other nihilistic, narcissistic, and self-destructive. At the very least, Ray recognizes that the worst aspects of Leith and Brand are present, to varying extents, in all humans. In the end, Bitter Victory is not just a stylistic and thematic wonder, but an emotional powerhouse as well: we understand the drives toward vanity and misery which compel the two main characters, and perhaps see shades of these flaws in ourselves. As Leith venomously tells Brand at one point, “I’m a mirror of your weakness.” In the manner of the best (and most acerbic) existential dramas, Bitter Victory holds up the same mirror for the audience, encouraging an introspection as electrifying as it is uncomfortable.