Bitter Victory(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
Seen in some circles as Nicholas Ray's last great film, Bitter Victory is a bit of an oddity. Set during World War 2, it tells the story of a top secret British raid on a Nazi base. Following this mission, the British troops wander into the desert where they are plagued by sandstorms, scorpions, and internal strife. Particularly problematic, Major Brand (Curt Jurgens) is accused of cowardice by his wife's former flame, Captain Leith (Richard Burton). Terrified that these claims might undermine his reputation, Brand quietly plots against Leith and, simultaneously, loses control of his disgruntled troops.
While Bitter Victory isn't particularly well known today, it appears to have been extremely influential in its own time. The desert scenes prefigure the visual splendor of Lawrence of Arabia, which came only five years later, and it features the same stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere quality as the original Flight of the Phoenix, crossed with the "friendly fire" amorality of Platoon. In fact, this film is full of morally paradoxical moments (mercy killings, anyone?) that remain controversial today, particularly in light of the military-can-do-no-wrong fantasy that's sweeping the nation.
Nicholas Ray was a consummate American filmmaker -- after all, this is the man who directed Rebel Without a Cause -- but this film has a sensibility that is extremely reserved and distinctly British. As a result, the occasional flourish of intensity has tremendous impact. In the film's few action-packed moments, there's a taste of pulp reminiscent of early Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller and it's a welcome diversion in a film that's too heavy-handed for its own good. Also quite impressive are the alarmingly bombastic music cues that definitely shouldn't work...but miraculously do.
Yet again, Sony Pictures does a good job with the widescreen, black-and-white transfer and, while it isn't noted anywhere on the package, this is the 102 minute British cut of the film, not the 82 minute version released in the United States. There are no major features, which is understandable, given that pretty much everyone involved is dead. There are, however, trailers for The Fog of War and 2 Burt Lancaster classics -- Castle Keep and From Here to Eternity -- even though Lancaster had nothing to do with Bitter Victory.
To be perfectly honest, Bitter Victory is a major downer. Nonetheless, it's worth a look for curious fans of Nicholas Ray and unorthodox war films, in general. -- Jonathan Doyle