Columbia’s bare-bones DVD of Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory represents U.S. audiences’ first opportunity to see this beautifully filmed, daringly cynical, but ultimately unsatisfying picture since its disastrous initial release nearly 50 years ago. Set in Libya during World War II, this French/American co-production was beset immediately by script, casting, and production problems. First, Ray failed to secure his top choices for two leading roles, Moira Shearer and Montgomery Clift, forced instead to settle for the less appealing Ruth Roman and Curt Jurgens. (Not only a middling actor, the German-born Jurgens is comically miscast as an English officer.)
Ray then convinced the one star he’d already hired, Richard Burton, to play Clift’s role, the mordant intellectual Captain Leith. In addition to reworking the central relationships during shooting, the director also dealt with Jurgens’ complaints that his character, the opportunistic Major Brand, was not sympathetic. Finally, following a lukewarm reception at the Venice Film Festival, the picture was cut by a full 20 minutes and re-released without studio support after a brief, poorly-received opening in the United States.
Though once a favorite of the Cahiers du Cinema critics for his string of near-masterpieces, including Bigger than Life (1956) and In a Lonely Place (1950), Ray’s reputation has abated. But now that recent (if unpromoted) DVD releases make his work available again, what should we think of him? Is the restored Bitter Victory—a strange mixture of heist film, combat movie, and 1950s “psychological” characterization—a neglected masterpiece, worthy of Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous statement in Cahiers, “Henceforth, there is only cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray”? Or has its existentialist manner, presumably what attracted Godard but alienated contemporary audiences, dated irrevocably, proof instead of why it took so long to reemerge?
Perhaps. One of the great joys of serious movie-going (and DVD-watching) is “discovering” the greatness of previously misunderstood films. (Think of Bringing Up Baby  or Straw Dogs  or nearly anything directed by Jean Renoir.) And while there is much to enjoy in Bitter Victory, including some memorably suspenseful episodes and Burton’s first-rate performance, greatness is beyond its reach.
The bland, arbitrary treatment of the central love triangle is its most significant flaw. The film begins the day before Captain Leith and the pencil-pushing 13-year veteran Major Brand are to lead a commando squad into the desert to steal precious documents from the German army’s headquarters in Benghazi. That night, Brand’s wife Jane (Roman) visits the English base, and we learn that she and Leith were lovers before the war. The ensuing officers’ canteen scene, wherein Brand discovers their history, suffers compared to more intriguing meetings with former lovers in films like Casablanca (1942) and His Girl Friday (1940). Even Burton’s signature contempt—which makes it pleasingly tricky for the viewer to decide whom Leith despises more, Jane, her husband, or himself—can’t liven up his scenes with the dull, matronly Roman.
Ray’s women are rarely very interesting unless they’re married to him (Gloria Grahame, the resplendent star of In a Lonely Place) or outrageously mannish (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar ). Accordingly, Bitter Victory picks up noticeably once the men leave Jane behind, hightailing it to the desert for the Benghazi mission. Those scenes are tense and superbly executed, especially when the squad must dodge Nazi searchlights during their escape into the wasteland. Leith and Brand’s antagonism only deepens when the former dispatches a German sentry because Brand has frozen at the prospect of killing a man in cold blood.
It’s this dramatization of wartime ethics, and not the red-herring conflict over Jane, that really drives the film. Leith, curdled by an awareness of his own emptiness, delights in diagnosing Brand’s weaknesses. The major’s reluctance to kill, Leith recognizes, is rooted equally in spinelessness and self-serving morality. Later, poisoned by a scorpion and beyond caring, Leith taunts him: “You’re not the sort of man, Brand, who’d kill for his woman. But you’d… murder to stop her from finding out that you’re a coward.”
Cowardice and insecurity compel these soldiers to act. Perhaps the most vehemently anti-war film of its era, Bitter Victory has no time for Greatest Generation mythologizing; Ray’s version of WWII conspicuously lacks heroes. But his men are all the more dangerous for being vulnerable: knowing that they’re weak forces them to overcompensate. The only “courage” found here is in such foolish gestures as Brand’s drinking from a possibly poisoned well in order to prove himself to those in his command. That they take it to be further proof of his lack of character is appropriate, as Brand issues orders with an eye mainly toward creating circumstances that will get Leith killed. The pathetically villainous Brand, out of his depth and miles from nowhere, hides behind his rank and demonstrates that no situation is too dire to be exploited for personal gains.
At times, the film presents this pessimistic view of men at war in a crushingly literal manner, as in a final shot when Brand pins a medal to a training dummy’s chalk-outlined heart. This clearly “symbolic” image would be heavy-handed even without its foreshadowing by one of Leith’s slightly-too-articulate streams of invective. Other events are also obviously or, worse, confusedly staged, including Leith’s scorpion bite and a climactic sandstorm.
That said, Bitter Victory boasts magnificent location photography. In black and white CinemaScope, the desert scenery appears more varied and has more personality than in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, released five years later. It’s frequently gorgeous, especially at night when Ray and cameraman Michael Kelber shoot the harsh North African landscape to resemble the surface of some desolate planet. Unlike Lean’s grand, rolling sea of dunes, the desert of Bitter Victory—whether hard and rocky or nearly whited out by the blasting midday sun—is never less than unforgiving.
If there is greatness in this film, it is Ray’s talent for capturing a (very 1950s) sense of isolation without resorting to simplistic visual metaphors. Rather than express camaraderie, Ray’s two-shots reinforce his characters’ solitude and emphasize the spaces that separate them. When he frames characters in low-angle close-ups, set against the sky, instead of appearing monumental, the men appear uniformly lost beneath the heavens’ blank expanse. As composer Maurice Le Roux’s hollowly triumphant theme music suggests, to prevail offers no relief. In this war, survivors are left only with their own guilt, fears, and illusions.