The last of director Nicholas Ray's great films, Bitter Victory is a brilliant, shamefully neglected war movie about a British raid on a Nazi base. Richard Burton stars as battle-worn Captain Leith, assigned to help Major Brand (Curt Jurgens) lead a squad of toughened commandos. Complicating their relationship is the fact that Leith once had an affair with the Major's new wife (Ruth Roman), and is also harbouring serious doubts about his superior's fitness for the grim realities of desert warfare.
Released in a restored new print, Ray's masterful 1957 film impresses with its black and white Cinemascope photography - making the barren desert landscape a terrifyingly empty place where men are reduced to wrecks, and heroism gives way to abject cowardice.
After the raid is carried out and the squad escape into the sand dunes to meet up with their escort home, things begin to fall apart. Scorpion stings, sandstorms, and German patrols take their toll, but the real enemy lies within: Jurgens' blustering martinet of a major. He slowly loses control over the squad as the enlisted men (including Nigel Green's private and Christopher Lee's cockney sergeant) begin to realise what kind of coward he is.
"BLEAK PORTRAIT OF MASCULINITY"
Stoking the psychological depths of the screenplay (adapted from René Hardy's novel Amère Victoire), Ray delivers a bleak portrait of masculinity pushed to the limit that leaves both Jurgens and Burton's characters monumentally broken by the time the credits roll. "I kill the living and save the dead," whispers Burton's scholarly archaeologist turned maverick army officer shortly after the film's seminal scene in which he is left to kill two wounded soldiers, one German and one British.
Full of sharply observed drama and a bilious, misanthropic hatred for the folly of man, this is a stunning war movie in which the emotions are the troops, psychology is the battlefield, and love is the bitterest victory of them all.