Despite his assured gift for elegance, Nicholas Ray made Bitter Victory into something wholly unexpected: a completely un-Romantic film. This war movie, set in the desert campaign of WWII, is the story of a group of elite commandos who are trained to expect everything except the actual feeling of being in real warfare. The opening shot, holding on training dummies suspended in the commando camp, positions the props like undressed mannequins more than devices to hone killers. The hearts drawn on them as anatomical direction for better killing only make them more feminine before we see the soldiers marching through the room.
This preemptive vision of war as a game, a constant training exercise that only truly alters when the exercises can kill you, carries the film for the remainder of its 102 minutes. A clueless general, looking to send some men to intercept some Nazi papers in Libya, chooses one Major David Brand (Curd Jürgens, reversing the tendency for British actors to be cast as German officers), to lead the mission based on his rank. But a subordinate objects, noting that Capt. Jim Leith (Richard Burton), is more active, more dedicated, can speak Arabic and knows the area. But the general cannot place a lower-ranking officer in charge, and what’s more he doesn’t trust a Welshman, so he opts to send both but to leave Brand clear authority.
Ray’s first war film after his workman project Flying Leathernecks, Bitter Victory manages to link back to that film (perhaps Ray’s weakest and certainly the one he had the least care for while shooting) in its depiction of rivalry between two males. The sole woman, Brand’s wife, exists mainly to drive yet another wedge between Brand and Leith, her past romance with Leith filling Brand with personal jealousy to complement the feelings of professional envy of Leith’s talents and brashness.
Upon parachuting in Libya, the conflict between the two blows up to such heights that the Nazis almost seem incidental. When he needs to dispatch a sentry, the craven Brand balks and orders Leith, whose reluctance to killing is based on morality instead of cowardice, to do the job. When a skirmish leaves several casualties, Brand tasks Leith with remaining behind, alone to tend to the four mortally wounded men as they slowly die. The experience takes an already sensitive Leith and wrecks him, and when he rejoins the rest of the unit and has to roam the desert with Brand, he openly voices his wish that the jealous officer would just kill him and be done with it, just so he can stop dwelling on what he’s seen. And when Brand shows his spine for just a moment, to test the water from a well for poison, he does so seemingly more for the approval of his subordinates than out of concern for their well-being.
This is a far cry from Howard Hughes’ imposed jingoism and flag-waving patriotism in Flying Leathernecks. As Kevin B. Lee succinctly put it, Ray “is the first existential action director,”1 and he brings that sense of psychological, philosophical depth to the scenes of gunfire. The action scenes are grisly, unromanticized and terse, brutal slashes of explosions and shrapnel that have no glorifying outcome, only death. Even the early raid on the Nazi headquarters, the only out-and-out action setpiece of the movie, is too blistering (yet still classically shot) to be all that rousing, and the shot of a soldier busting a portrait of Hitler seems more a show of childish impudence than a victorious gesture. Throughout the film, the action filmmaking quotes, directly and indirectly, the same training exercises seen at the beginning of the film, making war into a sick game. Ray frames numerous shots to maintain suspense while robbing the film of its potentially inspirational power, his framing always emphasizing the isolation of the commandos instead of overpowering dedication and conviction. In such conditions, their noble sacrifice is seen only as a horrible, final demise—shattered pawns of players who view them as statistics.
One observation of Ray’s ‘Scope style that I love comes from Eric Henderson’s review of this film, in which he noted that Ray “defined many of his rectangular shots by their consequent lack of a vertical axis. Ray’s characters are almost always finding themselves hunched over, dwarfed by the girth of their surroundings, and otherwise fighting an unspoken psychological constriction that manifests itself in Ray’s letter-pressed compositions.”2 This is certainly true of Ray’s domestic dramas filmed with CinemaScope, movies in which he uses the horizontal expanse to paradoxically emphasize how limited the suburban prisons in which the films operate truly are.
Here, he almost seems to use CinemaScope to show the laughable notion of a wider screen somehow capturing more of the endless desert. Instead, he constricts his frame, not only vertically (as Henderson said, characters are often forced down in some way, and when they aren’t Ray likes to get synecdochical shots of feet moving into frame), but horizontally. The film’s occasional dips into near-surrealism suggest a subjectivity backed up by the sense of isolation engendered by the framing. Ray compacts the mise-en-scène around his handful of actors, focusing their attention on what few objects and people are within their grasp. In a sense, every shot is its own oasis, a pocket in the desert, only Ray’s oases do not contain shade or water or anything else to hide these men from the elements they do not remotely understand as Englishmen from rainy, temperate Britain.
Ray is so confident with his imagery that he even grinds an already elegant film to a halt in the middle to savor the horrors of the aforementioned oversight of the casualties. As the wounded squirm out their last bits of energy in agony, barely able to even moan their pain, the sights turn surreal: the arrangement of the men on the ground is striking in its composition, laying the men out as if for appraisal. Death comes and leaves only a British and a German soldier, and a zoom-in on the German shows bugs crawling out of the sand around him, prepared to set upon his already rotting flesh. These shots alone are as troubling as Leith’s realization that he must kill the remaining men to put them out of their misery, but Ray’s framing of the different ways he approaches both Nazi and comrade pile on the gruesome horror of killing.
The final act deals with this cynicism openly, highlighting how out of their element the supposedly elite commandos are, not merely in combat experience but unfamiliarity with the territory. A climactic wound does not even involve gunfire but the sting of a scorpion, an ignoble death that calls attention to the ways that even those with knowledge of the area are still outside of it. Furthermore, it denies a trademark Ray hero from enjoying an iconic demise, not merely punishing his arrogance (as Ray often does with his protagonists) but eliciting empathy solely from the ignominy of his tortured reckoning. That death takes away one of the leads without dramatic flourish, forcing the remaining protagonist to try to make sense of things without him, but how can he, after what he’s just seen? Rarely has the quest for militaristic heroism ever been so ironically (yet sincerely) dismantled and scuttled.
“I don’t know enough to break the rules,” a clueless comrade says to Leith, but the same is not true of Ray. Having been forced to make a pedestrian, conservative war movie to appease the hand that fed him in the early days, Ray knew how to construct a war movie. But this film, a joint French-American production that showed Ray tugging at his Hollywood bonds, exhibits Ray’s mastery of form and his relentless subversion of it. His first black and white film since 1952’s The Lusty Men, Bitter Victory clearly shows the lessons Ray learned as Hollywood’s king of color, only he saps the movie of its color to match its somber, introspective tone. And yet, that underlying capacity for florid direction makes for an experience of bizarre, indescribable purity, and it’s no wonder Jean-Luc Godard, emerging from its meditative journey, could utter perhaps his most famous critical pronouncement: “Le cinéma, c’est Nicholas Ray.”
1 Article source.
2 Review found here.