And so the onetime-apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright here makes men look like the ruins of buildings. Jimmy Leith (Richard Burton), a civilian volunteer who was once an archeologist, and Major David Brand (Curt Jurgens) are leading a mission through the Libyan Desert, transporting a set of stolen Nazi documents from Benghazi back to HQ. Most their men are dead, and more seem ready to die. It doesn’t matter to Brand, the Generals told him that they are expendable and he wants his medal. Brand wants Leith dead too. Leith was once his wife’s lover, and the two men play out their rivalry across the wide expanse of sand, sniping, undermining and attacking each other. Leith deems Brand a coward and he is not wrong; Brand is a bastard who relies on the intellectual volunteer Leith to do his killing for him and he lets a scorpion attack Leith in the hope that this will be enough to kill him without any personal intervention (although he later attempts to make the decision to leave Leith to die of his wounds), and he is quite willing to let his men perish for the sake of his own victory and glorification built upon lies and deceptions. But Leith too is a wreck of a man, spurred on by a deathwish and a loss of self in the midst of nihilist playacting. He swings between a virtuousness and a cynical, destructive spite that both seem equally driven by a desire to upstage and disparage Brand, and which act as a cover for a tormentingly confused, guilty morality. Jonathan Rosenbaum called this film an examination of “macho poses” in the context of that most extreme of macho games, war. In Bitter Victory war is no place for heroism; it is the work of desperate, broken men looking for personal validation, and prepared to sacrifice each other to get it. When Brand pins his medal on the featureless training dummy at the end of the film the message is clear; the soldiers remain faceless to the Generals who command them and their actions are unclear and overlooked, and these soldiers themselves have become little more than mannequins draping themselves in the accruements of vicious, damaging masculinity. At one point Leith tells Brand he is an unbearable mirror to his own weakness. Leith is wrong. The whole film is a mirror to a much deeper, societal and cultural male weakness. This was a common theme throughout Ray’s work, and here it reaches a scathing, scarring culmination.
During their mission Ray’s men seem both monumental and dwarflike. Stained, sunbleached, crumbling husks standing out amongst the overwhelmingly massive, whitehot blankness of the desert that fills the cinemascope screen, they begin to resemble the ancient city remains that populate the terrain and so fascinate Jimmy. And why not? For these men are the debris of some distant culture and humanity too. In this unfamiliar, alien landscape the war, with its European origins, seems like some hallucination from very far away, and the whole things become surreal, perhaps even unreal. When the men first complete their mission and flee into the sands in their Arab disguises in the slow, black night they appear less like soldiers and more like invading ghosts or spirits of folklore. There is a stark beauty in the cinematography, but also the suggestion of some deep nightmare of the male subconscious, something dredging itself up. The film feels closer to Bunuel than the average Hollywood war film. Sometimes one must defamiliarize and disorient to get at some kind of truth.
The production was so fraught that coherence and consistency is sometimes an afterthought, and it takes until a beautifully edited nightclub sequence, complete with an eccentric moment dwelling upon a soldier’s delirious hand miming, for the mark of Ray’s genius to first fully arrive on the screen, but even in its weaker moment Bitter Victory is a film that burns and blisters like the unforgiving Libyan sun that shines so brightly and abstractly upon these men and threatens to turn them into even less than the nothing they already are. This is the last masterwork from one of the American cinema’s most radical, brilliant film-makers.