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By the mid-fifties, Nicholas Ray was less appreciated in his own country than he was in Europe where he was considered an important auteur. Jean-Luc Godard, a film critic at the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema before he became a director, made the proclamation, "The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Yet, despite the popular success of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Ray's stock in Hollywood decreased with each passing film - Hot Blood , Bigger Than Life , The True Story of Jesse James  - until tired of dealing with the Hollywood studio system and frustrated by the creative compromises he had to make, he decided to relocate to Europe and seek better opportunities. The result was Bitter Victory (1957), which was based on the novel Amére Victoire by René Hardy.
Ray had first read the novel while living in Los Angeles and was fascinated with the subject matter. It was the story of two officers stationed in Cairo during World War II who are assigned to a dangerous mission; they must travel in disguise to Benhazi and seize important documents from Rommel's headquarters without being captured. The two officers, Major David Brand and Captain James Leith, have diametrically opposed attitudes about personal duty and honor which is complicated by the fact that both are in love with the same woman, Brand's wife Jane. Although the men succeed in their raid on Rommel's lair, their journey back across the desert under the blazing sun is one ordeal after another, a situation that increases the deadly antagonism between the two men.
Enlisting the aid of screenwriter Gavin Lambert and the original author who traveled from Europe to Los Angeles, Ray began preparations to film Bitter Victory. According to Lambert in Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, Ray wasn't interested in making the typical WWII action film but wanted to focus on what war does to people and how they act under pressure instead. "We talked mainly about the conflict between the two principal characters," Lambert said, "something he felt very close to. Because...basically he was both of them. And I think that was the mainspring of the film for him. It wasn't a war film, nor was it an anti-war film; it was a private psychological duel. I liked the idea that the outcome of the mission was really nothing to do with how they performed it, but with what they felt about each other. That, in a way, said something about war. That it was an example of people's neuroses coming out. And that if people could discover how neurotic they were in a war and in peace it might never have happened."
For the casting, Ray was set on Richard Burton as the cowardly Brand, Montgomery Clift for the disillusioned Leith (with Paul Newman as a secondary choice), Curd Jurgens as a captured German officer and Moira Shearer as Jane. Unfortunately, Ray quickly discovered that not only his casting choices but the script would be subjected to numerous changes by his producer Paul Graetz. All of this resulted in an increasingly hostile working relationship that was compounded by the taxing physical conditions of shooting on location in the desert around Tripoli.
While Graetz rearranged the casting to his liking, installing Jurgens in the role of Brand, Burton as Leith and Ruth Roman as Jane, he also began fighting Ray over script changes. Hardy had the power to veto any changes to the script he didn't like, thanks to his contract, and he was a constant, oppressive presence during this phase. Then Lambert was fired because he refused to "spy on" Ray and report on his on-and-off the set behavior and drinking binges to Graetz. Paul Gallico was brought in to write additional changes and dialogue which Ray often discarded or ignored while secretly using blacklisted writer Vladimir Pozner (Another Part of the Forest, 1948) as a trusted replacement for Lambert.
As for the cast, Jurgens developed a close on-set relationship with the producer's wife, Janine Graetz, who was serving in an unofficial capacity as a production assistant. Due to this, he tried to influence script changes to make his character more sympathetic. According to continuity director Lucie Lichtig, "Nigel Green was terrific, but hated being directed by Nick. He was acting in a fury all the time, raging at what Nick was asking him to do." For his famous mad scene in the film, Green got roaring drunk. Compared to them, Richard Burton was the consummate professional. Lichtig noted that "He [Ray] and Burton got on well together. It's odd, actually, because they talked more about art and the theatre than about the cinema or the film itself....They understood each other from the moment they met, but it was something the young English actors in the cast couldn't buy, they couldn't make him out at all."
The pressures on Ray to deliver a commercially successful film took its toll on him personally and after the final mixing was done, he collapsed from physical exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. Lambert would later comment, "I think the film was more or less taken out of his hands. To me, Bitter Victory was a crucial point in his life, because he was very excited about the European adventure. I must admit at first I was taken in by Graetz; it wasn't until it was too late to get out that one realized one was dealing with some kind of psychopath. But as I say, I think this was a disaster for Nick, because he was disappointed by the whole thing. His personal problems, the drinking...and he got seriously into drugs in Paris, too...that's when it started. So I really think it was a turning-point; if the film had gone well, his whole life might have been quite different."
Bitter Victory was invited to the Venice Film Festival where it was nominated for a Golden Lion award and was praised by some of the Cahiers du Cinema writers such as Eric Rohmer who wrote that it was "The only intelligent film shown at the festival." Its reception in the U.S. was less distinguished with several critics pointing out the film's incongruities; Variety reported that the "script is basically flawed by the unclearly delineated key character of the major - and Curt Jurgens' competent, straightforward performance is less successful because of it." It didn't help that Bitter Victory existed in various versions around the world. The original version ran 103 minutes, a French version ran 87 minutes, a British cut ran 90 minutes and the American release was only 82 minutes long.
Yet today Bitter Victory is considered one of Nicholas Ray's most personal and powerful films by some of the leading film critics and movie historians of our age. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote "This 1957 film offers a radical reflection on war, and its relevance to the current war in Iraq goes beyond the desert settings and references to antiquity...Bitter Victory may well be Ray's most ambiguous and disquieting work its only competitor in his oeuvre is the similarly pessimistic Bigger Than Life, which makes ordinary American middle-class life look almost as deranged as war does here." David Thomson, in his entry in Have You Seen?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, said, "There are people who categorize Bitter Victory as an antiwar film, but that is a disservice to Ray's pungent, agonized intelligence. He knows that war is circumstantial and accidental, a fog bank under which we do some of our worst acts. No, Bitter Victory is antipeople that is the real savagery it contains and it is one of those films in which Nicholas Ray was able to set aside all traces of comfortable, saving "optimism." He was a natural pessimist, and in this strange war film (made without a trace of anti-German feeling) he found the necessary cover for his real raid on the human spirit. I recall a time much closer to World War II when it seemed possible that Bitter Victory would date. Instead, its severity increases."
Indeed, the film's reputation continues to grow, and besides Ray's artful direction, Richard Burton gives a spellbinding performance as the cynical Leith ("I killed the living and I saved the dead"), the stunning widescreen black and white cinematography by Michel Kelber perfectly captures the film's bleak, alienated tone, and Maurice Leroux's almost atonal music score reinforces the dehumanizing aspects of the story using only percussion sounds and military motifs such as a muted trumpet.
Turner Classic Movies will air the original 102 minute version of Bitter Victory.
Producer: Paul Graetz
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Gavin Lambert, Nicholas Ray; Paul Gallico (additional dialogue); Rene Hardy (novel and screenplay); Vladimir Pozner (uncredited)
Cinematography: Michel Kelber
Music: Maurice Le Roux
Film Editing: Leonide Azar
Cast: Richard Burton (Capt. Leith), Curt Jurgens (Maj. Brand), Ruth Roman (Jane Brand), Raymond Pellegrin (Mekrane), Anthony Bushell (Gen. Patterson), Alfred Burke (Lt. Col. Callander), Sean Kelly (Lt. Barton), Ramon de Larrocha (Lt. Sanders), Christopher Lee (Sgt. Barney), Ronan O'Casey (Sgt. Dunnigan), Fred Matter (Col. Lutze).
by Jeff Stafford
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz (Faber and Faber)
Rich: The Life of Richard Burton by Melvyn Bragg (Hodder and Stoughton)
Richard Burton: Very Close Up by John Cottrell and Fergus Cashin
Richard Burton: A Bio-Bibliography by Tyrone Stevenson (Greenwood Press)
"Prisoners of War", essay on Bitter Victory by Jonathan Rosenbaum (at www.jonathanrosenbaum.com)