Saturday, October 18, 2008


"Flying Leathernecks" helmer Nicholas Ray, the justifiably celebrated auteur of meaningful films such as "Rebel Without A Cause," "In A Lonely Place," and "Johnny Guitar," allows sudsy melodrama, pretentious writing, and ponderous pacing to sabotage his seldom exciting and altogether tedious World War II epic "Bitter Victory." The miscast but amenable Teutonic star Curd Jurgens of "The Enemy Below" and Welshman Richard Burton of "Where Eagles Dare" embark on a last-minute mission to raid Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps headquarters in Benghazi and snatch valuable Nazi documents. Meanwhile, the supporting cast contains future Hammer icon Christopher Lee as a British sergeant and top-flight supporting actor Nigel Green who appeared as a sly officer in Arthur Hiller's World War II thriller "Tobruk." Indeed, the semi-cynical "Bitter Victory" paved the way for Andre De Toth's "Play Dirty" (1968) to issue its full-throttle anti-war sentiments. Unfortunately, "Bitter Victory" generates modest excitement for a war movie. Ray handles the raid efficiently enough without any gratuitous gore and/or bloodshed, but he spends most of the time with the British survivors as they trudge through the desert arguing their separate philosophies about murder, morality, and war..

The British plan a raid behind enemy lines on Rommel's HQ to obtain vital information, but General Patterson (Anthony Bushnell of "The Red Beret") objects to the timetable. "I can't be expected to find the right man for this at twenty minutes notice." He selects Major Brand to lead the commandos. Brand is a professional soldier with fifteen years of military service and commando training. Brand's chief drawback, however, is he has been behind a desk for that decade and a half and never tasted combat. Reluctantly, Patterson also chooses a younger officer as Brand's second-in-command. Captain Leith knows the Libyan Desert from his pre-war years as an archaeologist. Leith has lived with the Arabs and speaks their language. Initially, the ill-mannered Leith grates on Patterson's nerves when he regards the operation as "very difficult" and gives it a "one in a million" chance to succeed. Nevertheless, Leith confides in Patterson's subordinate that he wants to go on the mission.

The primary trouble between Brand and Leith involves the sudden appearance of Brand's wife. Jane Brand (Ruth Roman of "Ladies Courageous") picks the wrong time to show up and kindle jealousy between her husband and her former lover. You see, Jane was dating Leith regularly before she married Brand. The Leith & Jane romance ended abruptly when Leith left her standing in front of the British Museum and went to Libya without a word, as when Bergmann abandoned Bogart "Casablanca" in the rain at the train station. Jane accuses Leith of 'cowardice' for leaving her. Leith replies, "All men are cowards, in some way." Anyway, Brand is jealous of his subordinate officer whom he believes his wife displays more affection for in public. Interestingly, Burton replaced Ray's original choice for the role--Montgomery Clift. Later, Leith makes the ironic remark: "I kill the living and save the death." Friction arises between them because neither respects the other.

During the traditional briefing scene around a model of Rommel's HQ, the men learn two planes will transport them near their objective. They will bail out and then they will march three hours to their destination. They will split into two groups and launch their attack. Ray doesn't show them parachuting from the plane. We hear the sounds of the planes flying away as the men collect their parachutes. Everything goes according to plan as our heroes slip into Nazi-held Benghazi at night disguised as Arabs. Once they reach the German occupied town, things go sour as Brand cannot stab a German guard and Leith performs the chore himself. Leith, from this moment on, criticizes Brand for his cowardice. The entire raid lasts approximately 5 minutes with another 5 minutes dispatching the Germans in pursuit. Our heroes capture a German colonel, and Brand orders Leith to remain behind with the wounded. The virus of mistrust and no respect infects the rest of the commando regiment, especially a wise-acre soldier, Private Wilkins (Nigel Green of "The Ipcress File") who exploits his skill as a safecracker to burglarize the German safe housing the documents. Three British soldiers are casualties of the commando raid, and things soon fall apart. Brand leaves Leith behind to care for two wounded soldiers. Eventually, Leith kills a wounded German, but he cannot kill the wounded Englishman. Instead, he loads the dying man on his back and marches away to catch up with Brand. The soldier curses Leith for being a coward and not killing him. The man that Leith carries dies from his wound. Leith chuckles ghoulishly when he learns about the dead man and observes, "I kill the living and save the dead." After Leith reunites with Brand and the men, he is bitten by an scorpion. Brand could have warned him, but he refused to for fear that Leith would expose him once they returned to camp as a coward.

Altogether, admirable as it is, "Bitter Victory" is a bit too bitter for my taste. The setting and the storyline about one British officer willing to kill or let another British officer die is clearly ahead of its time. The British maintained a stiff upper lip in the presence of movies like "Bitter Victory" and the far superior but historically inaccurate "Bridge on the Rive Kwai." "Bitter Victory" lacks the one quality that "Kwai" boasted: it was an artistic masterpiece. "Bitter Victory" has languished too long, but despite its poignant message, quotable dialogue, and top-notch performances, this is simply lukewarm. As a point of reference, "Bitter Victory" with contentions among its Allied heroes predated Raoul Walsh's adaptation of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" that appeared a year later in 1958. Although I am no champion of this movie, "Bitter Victory" deserved better treatment from Columbia in this DVD release. Hopefully, perhaps, Criterion will intervene for the sake of Nicholas Ray's memory.

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