Judge Jesse Ataide assures you this film has nothing to do with George W. Bush or the Iraq War. At least not directly.
"War is inhuman."
For decades, Nicholas Ray's 1957 psychological examination of war was known primarily as the film that provoked French critic/director Jean-Luc Godard to write a glowing review crowned with the famous sentiment "henceforth there is cinema, and the cinema is Nicholas Ray."
Fellow critics and future [i]auteurs[/i] were also quick to express their deep admiration of Ray's film, as well as his career in general. But all of this praise coming from one of the most influential schools of film criticism could not save Ray's film from obscurity. It fell into almost complete oblivion for years, searched for (usually unsuccessfully) by devotees of Ray's magical brand of cinema. This DVD marks the first release of Bitter Victory on any home video format, for the very first time allowing fans to determine how accurate Godard's fawning statements truly were.
Facts of the Case
Despite being opposites in both temperament and capabilities, Major Brand (Curd Jurgens, The Spy Who Loved Me) and Major Leith (Richard Burton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) are both assigned to head up a dangerous mission to capture some papers detailing enemy attack plans. Brand has paid his dues by devoting his life to the army; Leith has had experience in the Libyan desert (working as an archeologist) and speaks the local language. Their superiors figure their combined talents will give the risky mission a greater chance of success.
Compounding their mutual dislike and mistrust, Brand's wife Jane (Ruth Roman, Strangers on a Train) unexpectedly shows up the night before they leave. Escorting her to a local bar, Brand invites the solitary Leith to his table out of courtesy, but quickly realizes something is amiss. The atmosphere fills with sexual tension, pregnant pauses and cryptic comments. When Brand is temporarily called away, we learn that Jane and Leith were lovers back in England, their marriage plans terminated only after Leith, unwilling to commit to their relationship, left for Libya without ever saying goodbye.
The next morning Brand, Leith, and their squad leave to begin their mission. After parachuting into the desert wasteland, a psychological game between Brand and Leith begins. As the mission unfolds, their flaws are dramatically revealed, and are subsequently used as fuel for their growing feud. The hostility escalates until it begins to put their lives, and those of their men, at risk, and the mission seems doomed to fail.
If the name Nicholas Ray rings a bell at all, it's probably as the director of the 1955 masterpiece of adolescent angst Rebel Without a Cause, or as the man behind In a Lonely Place, the film containing Humphrey Bogart's greatest acting performance. But to some devoted cineastes, Nicholas Ray is the creator of some of the most subversive, well-acted and flat-out amazing films to come out of the straight-laced Hollywood system during the 1950s. To this group (which this reviewer considers himself part of), the million dollar question is whether or not Bitter Victory is the long-awaited Nicholas Ray masterpiece that we've been promised by the critics of the Nouvelle Vague.
Quite frankly, it's not. While it is a fascinating examination of human psychology during war-time tension, it lacks the passion and intensity that so brilliantly festers just beneath the surface of Ray's greatest films. This is not to say that Bitter Victory is not a good film, or even a great one. At the very least, it contains some sequences that rank among the best of Ray's work, as well as many themes that create interesting links back to the rest of Ray's filmography.
Like almost all of Ray's other films, Bitter Victory is a beautifully crafted, artistically wrought depiction of a train wreck—the kind of film where inevitable destruction is obvious from the very first glimpse of the emotionally wounded characters. Like Shakespeare's tragedies, Ray's films begin with a subtle sense of dread that unfolds with clock-like precision as it hurtles towards its preordained catastrophic finale. Each sequence brings a character towards destruction. Thanks to Ray's masterful handling of atmosphere and foreshadowing, the audience knows it long before the characters do.
There are also shades of James Dean and Jim Backus's conflicted father/son relationship in Rebel Without a Cause that emerge in Brand and Leith's tortured alliance. Like the character of Jim Stark, Leith is a free-thinking, emotional young man who feels overwhelmed by the constrictions of social conventions, as embodied by the distant, by-the-rules Brand (who is old enough to be his father). In many ways Bitter Victory is the depiction of two opposing world views clashing epically upon the sands of the African desert (and long before David Lean thought of doing it). The most generic interpretation would be that it is the twisty love triangle at the opening of the film that provokes this dramatic confrontation, but the struggle over the girl simply serves as a pretense to depict a much deeper conflict of wills; one that explores the very concepts of justice, heroism and masculinity.
As Captain Leith, the young and charismatic Richard Burton is set up as the underdog hero of the film—the sensitive idealist raging against the system. (Sound familiar?) And yet Ray subtly undercuts his assumed heroism, making him just as responsible as the unsympathetic fuddy-duddy Jurgens for the tragic outcome of the film. That is the "bitterness" of the title—for the film dares pose the questions: At what price victory? Is the sacrifice of the soul worthy of the title "heroism?"
First and foremost, it is exciting news that Bitter Victory has finally been released on DVD, on any home video format. Thankfully, the original 2:35:1 aspect ratio is retained, allowing viewers to witness Ray's exceptional use of space and mise-en-scene. Unfortunately, while certainly solid for a film of its age, there are image defects (particularly flickering) that appear occasionally throughout the film. The audio is unexceptional but serviceable, doing justice to the dialogue and Maurice Leroux's atonal score. No subtitles are provided, and with the exception of three "preview" trailers (for Castle Keep, From Here to Eternity, and The Fog of War), this release is without extras of any kind.
Unfortunately, despite all the accolades from the critical establishment, Bitter Victory is widely regarded as the point when Nick Ray's career began declining rapidly, never to fully regain the heights he had achieved with such films as They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and, most especially, Rebel Without a Cause. Bitter Victory may not rank with the first-tier films of Ray, a complex man who Francois Truffaut astutely described as "the poet of nightfall," but it's a fascinating (if flawed) film that dares to bring up questions that don't really have any good answers.
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