Let’s start with what is perhaps Bitter Victory’s most obvious relation to masculinity: this is a war film. As such, it is one of those “manly” genres which, according to Robert Burgoyne, along with the western, has been one of the most influential American genres. However, just as Ray’s other genre films, like his westerns Johnny Guitar and Run for Cover and his woman-privileging film noir In A Lonely Place, this war film doesn’t seem to perfectly abide one’s expectations. Though I have not seen Flying Leathernecks, made-to-order as a Thank You for the imperious Howard Hughes, it would seem to fit traditional conventions of the war genre, full of masculine action, daring, and bravado, much better than Bitter Victory does.
Bitter Victory, in true Ray fashion, is a film about human relationships: the stand-off masculine competition between the older, more authorial and official Brand and the younger, more passionate and instinctual Leith; the gaze-based tension-filled rehashing of Leith and Jane’s past romance; the triangulation of the two men and the lady at the dinner table, which is later repeated more figuratively among the two men and the memory/influence of that women out in the desert. Because of this focus on relationships and human dynamics, the action of the film progresses through words, not the action one would expect of a war film. Some of the film’s most tense moments come when Brand and Leith face off, when they verbally confront each other, questioning the other’s motives and the very nature of masculine courage. The violence, as we have seen in so many of Ray’s films, is largely indirect; for example, the camera holds on Leith’s face as he shoots the wounded German soldier who just whimpered “help me” and on the face of the British soldier who will soon face a similar fate, privileging the impact of violence (and committing violence) rather than on the act of killing itself.
Additionally, the “action” of this war film, the main mission which the men bravely undertake, itself perfectly epitomizes this Rayean indirectness: it is not the traditional combat scenario one might expect, but a secret mission to secure some important documents, one which must be carried out quickly, in secret, and largely in silence. After the documents have been secured, the men’s task is to walk through the desert (because their camels have been killed). Thus the narrative becomes about internal struggle, a struggle within the Allied unit rather than one of a united group against a nationally-Othered enemy force, perfectly apropos for Ray. It is significant that the two most important and arresting deaths of the movie, Leith’s and Mekrane’s, occur not in the chaotic shoot-out at the German strong-hold, in the only sort of “battle” like scenario of the film, but out in the desert: Leith is mortally bitten by a scorpion (which might indirectly be a sort of murder through silence, for Brand saw the insect and could have prevented it climbing up Leith’s pant leg), and is then finished off when he forms a protective wall in front of Brand during the sand storm; Brand shoots Mekrane when the guide tries to stab him the night, having seen the Major’s true “courage” in his willingness to let Leith get bit (and left behind in the desert with the wounded)/his inability or unwillingness to act to save him. These are not the types of killings or “murders” one would expect either in a war film or in war itself, which underlies the film’s message, delivered through the existential discussion between Brand and Leith, wherein Leith distinguishes between types of killings and types of cowardice, despite Brand’s unconvincing assertion that “war isn’t murder.”
Ray’s penchant for bursts of violence and action interspersed between slower periods of calm, of respite, is almost painfully clear in this movie, and heightened all the more by the absolute silence and lack of dialogue required of the men’s secret infiltration mission; this is then broken by the blaringly loud, unrelenting gashes of machine gun fire which crash through that deathly silence. This cyclical alternation between silence and violent noise is again repeated in the desert when, after slinking throughout the city in their Arab disguises, never saying a word, the men attempt to flee across the sand and the patrolling German trucks monstrously circle the sand around them, searching for them.
This “war movie” lacks the type of combat, daring, fighting action typical of the genre and seems rather uninterested in such events and depictions. Even the central action part of the plot rejects any heroic ideas of a “battle” and is over incredibly quickly, as if Ray can’t wait to get back to focusing on the men themselves and as if he does not wish to display any of the typical glory in these “bitter victories” of war: the British charge the German strong-hold, taking it in a matter of moments and easily and quickly killing all of the unsuspecting German guards and soldiers within, only losing one of their own men who is quickly written off (and easily left behind). Also, all indications of war, of battles, are initially indicated through models: the human-sized though disturbingly anonymous dummies with traced-on hearts representing the enemy, the model of the desert and the city which reveals the layout of the men’s mission, the toy plane the general handles as he plans the mission, and even the hand puppets and self-made sound effects of the terribly annoying soldier in the bar in the film’s beginning. These might merely be very practical, ingenious ways of conveying the war without wasting budgetary funds on more expensive representations, yet they also effectively show, especially those grotesque hand gestures and sound effects and the overhead sound of planes which interrupts the dancing and classical music of the bar, the intrusiveness of war, the way in which it is somehow not real, not really capable of being incorporated into human lives. But these moments also show the way war intrudes into human lives and disrupts the good parts of them: war tore Leith away from his beloved Roman ruins, and returned him to Libya not as a devoted archaeologist but as a soldier with a tactical knowledge of the desert, and it separated Jane from her husband, even after she joined up to be with him (and in the film he is seen repeatedly leaving her to answer the general’s call, to report in). These portrayals of war, with almost absent action (at least in the traditional sense of the war film) and of indirect violence, reveal the type of war film Ray was interested in making, the message he wanted to deliver about war and human conflict, the human element which lies at the heart of his films.