The secret passion of the cinephile is to find a hidden treasure. It’s often a film that wasn’t well-received in its day; its makers were beleaguered; and it is definitely, certainly not on DVD. Check all three for The Victors, a 1963 World War II movie in which a battle emerges between a bulging international cast. The movie’s director, Carl Foreman, was one of the blacklisted screenwriters that made up the Hollywood Ten, and The Victors was his only director’s credit. The New York Times hated it (though Bosley Crowther hated many things), and the Time critic wrote that “Foreman has spent two and a half years producing a faintly vulgar medley nearly three hours long.” It didn’t help that the previous year’s WWII epic, The Longest Day, had earned lots of money and a Best Picture nomination, overshadowing it. To this day The Victors isn’t on DVD or VHS. For all these reasons we can call the film a rediscovery. But is it good?
For long stretches, no, though its precepts are useful. Like many strong American war movies (from The Best Years of Our Lives to The Big Red One to The Thin Red Line), The Victors focuses on a group rather than on one individual, with accompanying commentary on group patterns and behaviors. (The Hurt Locker, by contrast, seems much more focused on individual trauma.) Foreman’s film sets up its social dynamic from its first scene, where a voiceover introduces us to our American soldiers, arriving last at their two German prisoners, “not-so-masterful members of the master race.” We’re told that in war there are two kinds of people, the vanquished and the victors. Nearly every scene in this episodic film illustrates that dynamic, whether the opposed be soldiers in different armies, men and dogs, or concentration camp survivors and their American saviors. Most frequently, though, the vanquished/victor dynamic emerges between American boys and European girls. Married Vince Edwards pines for married Rosanna Schiaffino, George Hamilton chases down young Romy Schneider, George Peppard falls into the older Melina Mercouri’s clutches, strong Eli Wallach protects quivering Jeanne Moreau (think about that last pairing). At times the movie feels less like Battleground and more like La Ronde—though, funnily, with its focus on all the time and space lovers spend without each other, the light love story La Ronde proves the sadder film.
Foreman gives his sweethearts nothing but time and space, with or without each other: He generally frames the action so that the actors have several inches of room on either side of them. That doesn’t mean that you can see them better, as the film’s black-and-white stock drowns in grainy, murky light, suggesting that The Bridge on the River Kwai’s screenwriter watched Paisan too many times. When people talk about the authenticity of Italian neorealist films, they’re often referring to technical elements (natural lighting, location shooting, amateur actors) rather than narrative ones. Neorealism’s plots can be as formulaic as Hollywood’s, with characters and events turned to make specific, didactic points—though sometimes, like with The Bicycle Thief, it works anyway. It doesn’t so much with The Victors, in which the message of each scene is that war is hell, somehow, and love sometimes sucks, too.
The movie’s script thuds and clunks (Schiaffino: “You love wife. You love me. I love husband. I love you.”), and so does its cast. Moreau, playing a Frenchwoman in a bombarded house, falls flattest: With her stiff, face-forward delivery, every word about civilian hardship enunciated, she gives not a character but a public service announcement. The other actors, hamstrung, follow. Wallach, the plainspoken, anti-bullshit, anti-intellectual voice of reason, keeps calling people “stupid idiots”; belle artiste Schneider stares into a glass and pines for her lost conservatoire. A young Albert Finney (the same year as Tom Jones), in a cameo as a Russian lout in a bar, escapes by freeing himself, Laughton-like—expanding his stance, stretching his shoulders, dangling an easy hand over the bartop, and generally swallowing space. It’s one of the few instances in The Victors where I don’t feel like I’m watching something that’s been carefully blocked.
This raises a paradox: The Victors shows copious newsreel footage (the Yalta Conference, or Army’s football team beating Notre Dame’s), but very little of the film feels authentic. To critic James Agee, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) war films ever made was 1944’s The Story of G.I. Joe, precisely because of how it merged documentary and fiction. I’m not crazy about G.I. Joe —Robert Mitchum gives a wonderful early-career performance, but after a while the film’s story disappears—yet I find myself in tune with Agee’s arguments for it. He wrote that G.I. Joe “not only makes most of its fiction look and sound like fact—and far more intimate and expressive fact than it is possible to record on the spot; it also, without ever inflating or even disturbing the factual quality…gives fact the constant power and meaning beyond its own which most ’documentors’—and most imaginative artists as well—totally lack feeling for.” An image can feel real, in other words, even when highly stylized. The example Agee gave is a sudden close-up of a soldier’s gear-laden back as he walks away from his captain’s corpse, an image Agee compared to poetry; by contrast, whether through round Churchill or square George Hamilton, The Victors constantly speaks dull prose.
That said, the two films overlap on at least one approach they take to capturing the real, and it’s the aspect of The Victors that I admire the most. Agee wrote that G.I. Joe acknowledges death by eliding it: “With a slight shift of time and scene, men whose faces have become familiar simply aren’t around any more. The fact is not commented on or in any way pointed; their absence merely creates its gradual vacuum and realization in the pit of the stomach.” Similarly, The Victors often drops characters without explanation, sometimes bringing them back with missing noses or crippled legs. The movie contains no actual battle sequences, but conveys the damage of battle beautifully—sudden, grotesque, and arbitrary (this differs from several rancid Holocaust films, the worst being The Grey Zone, which by burning as many fake bodies onscreen as possible to prove its moral seriousness actually cheapens real slaughter). This may be partly why two of The Victors’s most overt on-screen depictions of violence, an execution of an American soldier for treason and a climactic knife fight between rivals, are two of the film’s most galvanizingly obvious moments. In the first, the austere longshot handling clashes with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the soundtrack; in the second, the flying V shape that the wounded men form competes with the ruined physical terrain. In moments like these the victors are the audience members, who get to walk away from the movie. Cinema is a literal medium, but its stabs at reality can often look fake.
The Victors will play on March 1 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.