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Bitter Victory

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Jean-Luc Godard once famously wrote, "The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Much less famous is the movie that occasioned the observation. Bitter Victory marked Ray's ascension to "auteur" demigod status in France. Unfortunately, American prints ran 20 minutes shorter than the Amère victoire seen in Europe, with the unsurprising result that this enigmatic film--so charged with suppressed desperation and rage, you can hear the neurons snapping--became well-nigh incoherent. It gets worse. The picture, a milestone in the deployment of CinemaScope for emotional subtlety and expressiveness, was dumped to television in a pan-&-scan version that made hash of its compositions and editing rhythm. And that's the only way it was seen, for decades.

The setting is North Africa early in World War II. Two British officers, played by Curd Jürgens and Richard Burton, lead a commando team into the desert to attack a German post. Commander Jürgens doesn't know, but comes to suspect, that his wife (Ruth Roman) and Burton were involved sometime before Jürgens married her. The mission recedes into the background as the tension between the two men builds, and issues of ethics, cowardice, and the legitimacy of wartime killing are thrown into relief against the anvil of the desert. Jurgens was an opaque actor, but Burton etches a searingly modern portrait of an alienated soul whose mordant self-awareness avails him nothing; it's right up there with such Ray-directed landmark performances as James Dean's in Rebel Without a Cause and Humphrey Bogart's in In a Lonely Place. --Richard T. Jameson

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 13 reviews
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A tiny anti-war movie with a superb cast. Jan. 3 2007
By Patrick Selitrenny - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Richard Burton is at his best in this little war drama.

Unlike his later war movies, and other different ones, he starred in later on, he truly shines as an accomplished actor.

The support of German actor Curt Juergens has been a touch of class.

I won't reveal the contents of the movie, because it has to be watched as is.

Suffice it to say that it is a story about friendship, comraderie and betrayal, not forgetting cowardice.

I can only recommend it.

This is not a true war movie, in the conventional sense of the word, it it far more a story about human relationships during a war, just like "The Hill" by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery and Harry Andrews, this is a social study and much less an actioner.

If you like to go deeper within the human soul, this one is truly yours.

I gave it 4 stars for its present DVD edition. The movie is well worth more, but I get the sensation that something is still missing (not from the movie), something like some interviews and a behind the scenes commentary for instance.

Buy it, it is well worth it.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Enigmatic, Frustrating, Brilliant Aug. 24 2009
By Michael P. Healy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
The conflict between the two main characters seems at first one-sided, with the cynical, intellectual Burton more attractive than the stolid, uncertain Jurgens. But by the end of the film, with one of the men dead, which is the better soldier and which the better man is not so clear. It's a movie full of interesting, unanswered questions.

If you are intrigued by this brilliant and beautiful film where so much is left unsaid and unexplained, you will want to read James Harvey's chapter on Bitter Victory in his 2001 book Movie Love in the Fifties. He relates the confusion and conflict from which this extraordinary movie arose and provides a detailed, shot-by-shot analysis of several important scenes.
22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
A real masterpiece! Feb. 20 2005
By Hiram Gomez Pardo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
Nicholas Ray makes an impressive tragical portrait of the war looking inside the human soul and not about the outer conditions.

A honor debt will be paid by an officer -Richard Burton- in the middle of the War desert when he involves in a love affair precisely with the wife of his superior.

And Curt Jurgens the cheated husband will find the right time in this case when the revenge assumes his own identity color and metaphorically he can observe himself through this sinister animal.

The final speech is admirable. And the medal will be hanging from a silent scarecrow's is one of the most admirable and original proposals ever made .

A colossal artistic triumph and superb mature film!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Bitter Victory a Burton winner Dec 8 2011
By George McFarlin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Richard Burton, even in a less than perfect role, does an excellent job in this WWII movie. Co-starring Curt Jurgens and Ruth Roman, along with such future British movie stars such as Christopher Lee, Nicholas Ray proves again he's an excellent director.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Late Ray July 2 2011
By R. Overton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
So pessimistic even a lot of Ray cinephiles find this film difficult to respond to. Yet it's far
less dated than Rebel Without a Cause--and more interestingly complicated. Burton is fine--there's no chewing of the scenery--and the themes of courage, cowardice in various forms, cynicism & betrayal are deeply articulated not just in the script but in the many striking, sometimes mysterious images of the film. Finally this is a strange, troubling movie that deserves a wider audience.

Bravo to Michael Healey, the first reviewer here! I'm biased, since James Harvey is a friend of mine, but I'd second Healey's suggestion that you couple the viewing of this with Harvey's writing on Ray & "Bitter Victory." And, while you're at it, if you love the best movies from the 50's--& there were many--take a close look at Harvey's addictive, perceptive book. It was an interesting time. The studio system was breaking down, which provided room for a lot of smart, assertive directors to put their personal stamp on their films without studio interference.