Bitter Victory (1958)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Drama, War Drama  |   Release Date - Aug 29, 1957 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 97 min.  |   Countries - France, United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Josh Ralske

"I kill the living, and I save the dead," says Captain Leith (Richard Burton), with a sardonic laugh. This line of dialogue, in which a seemingly heroic character laments the impossibility of true heroism, is a signature moment in Nicholas Ray's powerfully ambiguous take on the war drama, Bitter Victory. In the hands of countless other filmmakers, Leith would have become an unassailably noble figure, with Major Brand (Curd Jürgens), his craven counterpart, as a hateful villain. But Ray and his actors manage to bring out the humanity -- for better or worse -- in each of these characters. Ray's career-long interest in the torments of strong men divided against themselves can't help but transcend Hollywood clichés of honor and cowardice on the field of battle. The dispute between Leith and Jürgens is preordained. It's a part of who they are as individuals to such an extent that the love triangle with Jane (Ruth Roman) that makes their conflict explicitly inevitable seems extraneous. Cinematographer Michel Kelber (who also shot Jean Renoir's French Cancan) provides gorgeous black-and-white Cinemascope images of the harsh desert. But the real power and grace of Bitter Victory is that through Ray's vision -- vigorous in its moral and emotional honesty -- and Jürgens' surprisingly layered performance, Brand becomes recognizably human in his anguish, and sympathetic despite the destructive outcome of his actions. This aspect is what raises Bitter Victory to the level of the director's most memorable films.