Bitter Victory (Ray, 1957)

The cowardice of Major Brand (Curd Jurgens), the leader of a British special ops mission in North Africa, stems from his jealousy of fellow officer Capt. Leith (Richard Burton) and more dubiously, his desire for recognition by the high command. In Nicholas Ray’s war picture Bitter Victory, one ends up equalling the other, the means to a mortal end. The psychological relationship between Leith and Brand takes center stage, leaving very little room for the other soldiers to develop as characters. But throughout their dangerous mission into the heart of a Nazi stronghold, both Leith and Brand take personal blows at the each other’s weaknesses, mainly because they love the same women and resent the other for it. Ray constructs these scenes with the utmost subtlety, almost too much so for my taste. Some of these moments go by almost unnoticed, like when Brand tells Leith to stay behind and help the wounded, an obvious suicide mission that Leith is more than happy to take part in. Their interactions are strange for the protagonist/antagonist dynamic, Ray using character cues (like Leith’s passing glances and brand’s constant lack of eye contact) to insinuate conflict. All of this makes Bitter Victory a mixed bag, a film ripe with tension, but little sensible plot dynamics. The men simply wander through the desert after their implausible escape, with little worry of water or transportation and only themselves as the key danger. The best scene in the film is the end sequence, Brand alone after arriving home, surrounded by stuffed combat dummies, used by the commando’s to practice killing. Realizing he’s no different, Brand pins his medal on the outlined heart of the dummy, signaling his own demise. But Ray doesn’t balance his act, leaving us with a constant reminder of Brand, but little of Richard Burton’s courageousness. If Burton’s Leith was a more commanding presence throughout, maybe Bitter Victory would have more of an impact.

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