Bitter Victory (1957): Ray’s War Film, Starring Curt Jurgens and Richard Burton

There are different versions of Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory, a black and white war film, shot in CinemaScope, based on the novel of the same name by René Hardy.

Set in World War II, the tale stars Richard Burton and Curt Jürgens as two British Army officers sent out on a commando raid in North Africa.

During the Western Desert Campaign of World War II, two Allied officers in Egypt are interviewed to lead a dangerous commando mission behind enemy lines in Benghazi.

Major David Brand, a South African, is an army officer but lacks experience of combat in field. He does not speak Arabic and has limited knowledge of the area in Libya in which the patrol is to operate.

Captain Jimmy Leith, a Welshman, is the opposite; an amateur volunteer with extensive knowledge of the area who knows a local guide and speaks fluent Arabic. While both officers go, Major Brand is put in command.  Brand is perceived as a disciplinarian, as one man says, “the only thing he’s slept with is the rule book”.

Major Brand’s wife Jane (Ruth Roman) is a WRAF Flight Officer who enlisted to be near her husband. When Brand invites Leith to drinks, he realizes that the two had an affair before she married Brand; Leith had walked out on her without explanation.

The unit parachutes behind enemy lines with the mission of attacking a German headquarters and bringing back secret plans from a safe to be opened by Wilkins, an experienced safecracker. Dressed as local civilians, Brand’s hand shakes with fright when he has to knife a German sentry; the deed is done by Leith.

The mission is completed successfully with few casualties. The patrol ambushes a German detachment, capturing Oberst Lutze, who Brand knows was responsible for the secret information.

Brand leaves him alone with two wounded men, a Brit and a German. Leith decides to put them out of their pain. He shoots the German, but when he puts his pistol to the British and fires, there are no bullets left.  Leith then picks the man up, and sets out to carry him to safety. The man cries out in agony and dies before Leith puts him down again. Leith, whose Arab friend has joined him, then joins the rest of the unit.

During the long march back across the desert, Brand’s animosity towards Leith grows, due to the affair with his wife, and Brand’s fear that Leith will reveal him as a coward and destroy his career.

When Leith is stung by a scorpion, Brand refrains from shooting him and lets him die in pain during a sandstorm.  Brand’s wife is distraught to learn of Leith’s death.  When Brand is awarded the Distinguished Service Order, instead of congratulating him, she walks off.  Brand then ruefully pins the medal on a stuffed dummy.

Bitter Victory was mainly a French production, and Columbia invested some money in return for distribution rights.

Much of the film was shot on location in Libya, with support from the British Army, and some interior scenes were shot at Victorine Studios in Nice, France.

The film had its premiere at the 1957 Venice Film Fest, before opening in France in 1957. The film released in the US in 1958 was cut down to 83 minutes.