It’s unsurprising that a film as understated and linear as Bitter Victory (recently restored to its original cut of 102 minutes) has almost become eclipsed by the thunder of Jean-Luc Godard’s infamously rapturous tribute in the pages of Cahiers (courtesy Tom Milne’s translation in Godard on Godard): “There was theater (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Even in supplying the quotation, I’ve probably sabotaged any impending observations that follow, but Godard’s superlatives were meant not to puff opium up Bitter Victory‘s ass or kick Renoir and Murnau to the curb, but rather strip away all that is futile and inadequate about film criticism in the face of “pure cinema.” Which is also how Bitter Victory, the tale of a British Army platoon sent to intercept and confiscate Nazi paperwork in a Libyan desert, operates: it’s a simmering brew of human folly and psychological disarray masked under a guise of pulp war novel love triangles and ethnographic diasporal (as when a desert scorpion ludicrously becomes as potent a threat to the safety of our military protagonists as retaliatory Nazi gunfire).
Wearing its blowhard maxims on the measures of men (in and out of uniform) on its proverbial sleeve and interrupting its own plotline mid-film in favor of a languorously extended, vaguely metaphysical capital-S Search (a few years before L’Avventura brilliantly used the narrativus interruptus structure as a testament to dispassionate times), Bitter Victory is, as Godard mentioned, far more than the sum of its images, though one can certainly understand the desire to gape. Ray’s unique knack for inverting the extreme expanses of the CineScope frame in on themselves was still astonishing. Most directors would use the 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an emphasis on the former digit of the proportion and stressing everything on the horizontal axis (i.e. snakes and funerals). Ray, a canny Hollywood auteur-as-smuggler, also recognized the importance of the second digit and defined many of his rectangular shots by their consequent lack of a vertical axis. Ray’s characters are almost always finding themselves hunched over, dwarfed by the girth of their surroundings, and otherwise fighting an unspoken psychological constriction that manifests itself in Ray’s letter-pressed compositions.
If Ray’s use of claustrophobic cinematography bespeaks of Bitter Victory‘s repressed emotions, then the release can be found in its subtle but insistent surrealism. There’s a lengthy exposition sequence in which Ray establishes the yin-yanging tandem of the story’s two army captains: Leith (Richard Burton, whose simpering kazoo vocals always seem to gloriously sabotage the screenplay’s attempts to validate his own self-righteous heroism) and Brand (Curt Jürgens, a German actor seemingly cast as a British combatant to throw suspicion onto his allegiances—at one point Burton accuses him of trying to impress their Nazi prisoner). Stunt casting aside, the film’s opening sequence also takes place on a night that, like something out of a Buñuel film, insists on restarting itself once again after even the umpteenth utterance of “Good night,” as Leith, Brand, and Brand’s wife (and Leith’s ex-lover) Jane (Ruth Roman) jockey for position in their tango of deception while awaiting word on which of them will be given the assignment to retrieve the documents.
Both are assigned and, almost as though the mission represents their romantic competition, take opposing roles of authority almost immediately upon arriving at the Nazi site until the stress of their struggle expands to mythical proportions in the sandstorms of the Sahara (even as Ray’s tight framing emphasizes the isolation of the desert as opposed to its Lawrence of Arabia expanses). And, ultimately, it’s fascinating to see how Ray manages to direct a war film in which (with one exception during and after the raid of the Nazi headquarters) all warfare is staged not by actual gunfire and heavy artillery but through game-like suggestions of combat, be they the stuffed combat training dummies hanging from the base gym’s ceiling, or the energetic hand puppetry of one soldier at a local canteen attempting to recreate one of his previous battles (a truly hypnotic throwaway bit that reaches its comical punchline, of sorts, when one “puppet” throws a grenade behind the bar and everyone’s eyes follow its imaginary trajectory). With apologies to Godard’s bit about “watching the stars,” the oddly narrow-focus of Bitter Victory, playing against testosterone melodrama, is as perverse as it is pure. And the emphatic irony of its haunting final shot economically conveys the dissolution that comes from realizing that heroism is a concept that exists separate from human worth. And if Burton’s character winds up as the film’s overt “hero,” it’s because his character embraces this contradiction, musing at one point (after accidentally killing one of the wounded soldiers he was supposed to protect), “I kill the living and I save the dead.”