Bitter Victory (1957) review-war may be hell, but it sure makes for compelling drama

One of the most interesting things about Mill Creek Entertainment’s “5 Classic War Films” DVD is that the majority of its content is pretty subversive in nature.

Sure, something like Commandos Strike at Dawn (1940) is pretty clear-cut military propaganda, but entries like The Prisoner (1955) and Castle Keep (1969) are openly anti-war stories that showcase just how absurd and dehumanizing these protracted conflicts can be.

That’s a pretty impressive ratio considering that this product is designed to be sold to a decidedly older and more conservative demographic.

Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957) operates on largely the same subversive level, and does a great job of disguising its real message by presenting viewers with visceral violence and potent melodrama on the surface.

The film stars Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens as two very different British officers in World War II, who are tasked with leading a raid on a Nazi outpost in Benghazi to retrieve some top-secret documents.

Of course, the operation doesn’t go exactly as planned, and the two men butt heads as their squad is forced to retreat across the Libyan desert to safety.

To make matters more complicated, Burton’s character previously had an affair with the wife of his superior officer (Jürgens) which drives an even larger wedge between them.

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The aforementioned clash of personalities between Burton and Jürgens is the absolute highlight of the movie, both from a writing and acting perspective.

The two characters are diametrically opposed in virtually every way except for the fact that they both wear a uniform, and screenwriters Ray, René Hardy, and Gavin Lambert do a great job of illustrating that fact to the audience.

Five minutes into the movie it becomes abundantly clear that Jürgens’ Major Brand is a careerist in the military, who is much more interested in handing out orders and appeasing his superiors rather than getting his hands dirty.

In fact, it’s quickly revealed that Brand has been relegated to a desk throughout most of his career, which doesn’t inspire much loyalty in his men when he’s expected to lead them behind enemy lines.

Conversely, Burton’s Captain Leith is an experienced academic and field researcher who speaks multiple languages and actively volunteers to go on this into a dangerous mission, rather than waiting to be told.

Plus, Leith’s compassion for the well-being of his fellow soldiers (and even some enemy combatants) easily eclipses Brand’s indifference to anybody who isn’t his wife.

This sounds like basic stuff on a scriptwriting level (and it is), but that solid foundation is taken to a whole new level thanks to Burton and Jürgens themselves.

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Outside of fully committing to their respective performances, these two actors also provide enough nuance and complexity to prevent their characters from coming across as broad stereotypes.

While Major Brand is cowardly and definitely not fit for command, you can’t help but feel sorry for him since Jürgens’ 1000-yard stare hammers home the idea that he knows he is way in over his head.

And even though Captain Leith is much more capable under fire, he does not come across like a stoic badass cut from the same cloth as Sgt. Rock or John Rambo (from First Blood: Part Two onwards at least).

In fact, Burton has this sorrowful look on his face every time he’s forced to commit an act of violence, which does a better job of highlighting the film’s anti-war themes than a lengthy monologue ever could.

Unfortunately, the same praise can’t be dished out for a lot of the film’s supporting players, who kind of fade into the background in order to make room for the two towering leads.

This is a real shame, since the cast is full of talented English actors like Christopher Lee (yes THAT Christopher Lee) who only get a few lines before they are shuffled off to the side.

However, maybe the disposable nature of all these secondary characters was by design.

After all, the filmmakers are really preoccupied with showcasing how these lower ranking soldiers are often forced into situations where they have no choice but to be sacrificial lambs so that officers like Major Brand can complete their objective and get a promotion.

Outside of the violent deaths that occur in the film’s main action sequences, Ray and his fellow screenwriters communicate this theme through much subtler means thanks to key strategic visuals.

One of Bitter Victory’s strongest lasting images is the practice dummies that litter the opening and closing of the film, which serve as stand-ins for the nameless soldiers who are simply used as pawns by the uncaring military machine.

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Of course, clever visuals can’t make up for some of the film’s more noticeable blemishes, like little production shortcuts that come hand-in-hand with such a modestly budgeted war movie.

For example, even though Brand’s squadron is supposed to air drop behind enemy lines, all the audience sees is a quick dissolve edit and a group of men packing up their parachutes on the ground.

I get that the filmmakers probably didn’t have the technology to properly capture a real HALO jump in 1957, but the least they could have done is spring for some cheap military stock footage.

And although this might be an unfair gripe, one of my biggest pet peeves in older movies is when characters get shot and they have to clutch their chest dramatically to make up for the obvious lack of an entry wound.

Again, I understand that squibs were not widely used in movies at that time, but this style of production always takes me out of a movie no matter how it is shot.

Outside of those small quibbles, Bitter Victory is still a hell of an engaging war movie that works on a variety of levels.

For those who just want to sit back and enjoy an old-school, men-on-a-mission type story with a love triangle sprinkled in, Ray and his fellow scriptwriters have you covered.

But if you want to dig a little deeper and find a film that is all about sticking up for individuals who are suffering under the thumb of an authoritarian institution, there’s still a lot to chew on.

This film also serves as a great follow up to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which tackled nearly identical themes from that same year.

In fact, the only group who wouldn’t enjoy Bitter Victory is the masterminds behind the modern military-industrial complex, since they would realize that people have been on to their shit from the very beginning.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Spitz Sunflower Seeds (because you chew them up and spit them out, the same way that the upper brass treat lower ranking soldiers in this movie)

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Fun facts:

-Release dates: Aug. 28, 1957 (Venice Film Festival), Nov. 29, 1957 (UK), March 3, 1958 (US)

Bitter Victory is an adaptation of the book Amère Victoire written by the film’s co-writer, and WWII-era French resistance fighter, René Hardy.

-French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard championed Bitter Victory as the best movie of 1957.

-Nicholas Ray’s biggest claim to fame before helming Bitter Victory was directing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

-This film was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, but lost to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (the second part of his famous Apu Trilogy).

Bitter Victory features two future Bond villains in its cast: Christopher Lee would go on to portray Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and Curd Jürgens became Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

-After serving a supporting role in Bitter Victory, Christopher Lee starred as The Creature in Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein during that same year. In 1958, Lee hit the big time by taking on the lead role in Hammer’s Dracula and would go on to star as the horror movie icon another eight times.

 

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) review-Christopher Lee deserved a better send-off as the Count

Besides Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is probably the most prolific actor to ever don Count Dracula’s cape on the silver screen.

This is no easy feat, since the Prince of Darkness has been portrayed in over 200 films by some of the industry’s most respected thespians, like Gary Oldman, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Langella.

But from 1958 to 1973, Hammer Studios turned Lee into a horror icon by casting him as the main antagonist in their revival Dracula series that took the character into new and interesting directions.

This is definitely true for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last film in the series to feature Lee, since the story revolves around a morbid cult helping the Count carry out his evil deeds in 1970s London.

Luckily, the descendent of Dracula’s old foe Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing for the fourth time) catches wind of these malicious machinations and teams up with a group of government agents to stop this undead fiend once and for all.

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched any of the other Hammer Dracula films starring Lee, since my horror DVD 12-pack only came bundled with this single entry.

But based on what I’ve been able to glean from online critics like James Rolfe, the series’ continuity is all over the place and doesn’t really make sense anyway.

All you need to know is that Dracula is skulking around modern day London and most of the older films’ gothic sets and atmosphere have been replaced with cheap on-location shooting.

For some reason, the filmmakers also decided to try and modernize this story by imbuing it with period appropriate funk music, which makes it sound like Shaft is going to jump out of the shadows at any moment and kick vampire ass.

The movie’s tone in general is all over the place, switching from scenes involving satanic cults and human sacrifice to dry exchanges between government agents that resemble a John le Carré spy novel.

Based on this description, you might be fooled into thinking that The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a fascinating mess of a film that keeps you hooked based on how off-the-wall some of its ideas and concepts are.

While this does happen occasionally, the movie is mostly a giant bore that barely features Lee in any meaningful way.

Dracula himself doesn’t show up until half-an-hour into the film and takes up less than 20 minutes of total screen time.

While this is apparently par for the course when it comes this series, critics like Rolfe said that previous entries at least made up for the lack of Dracula by providing some interesting performances, eerie atmosphere, and impressive gore effects.

Satanic Rites really doesn’t bring any of that to the table with its bland main characters, goofy score, and tepid use of bloodshed.

The most compelling thing about the film is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, since he at least tries to take this bonkers material serious. Sadly, he isn’t given that much to do, since 90% of his dialogue consists of dolling out exposition.

The movie’s plot also really starts to go off the rails in its second half when Van Helsing discovers that [SPOILERS] Dracula is planning to wipe out humanity by developing a new strain of the bubonic plague. How he would be able survive in a world without human blood to feast on I have no idea.

The writers try to salvage this idiotic turn by suggesting that Dracula wants to die himself and take the world down with him. However, that doesn’t explain why he spends so much of film’s running time turning pretty English girls into his vampire brides instead of focusing on his plan to commit mass genocide.

The last nail in this film’s coffin is its insulting finale, where [SPOILERS] Dracula meets his end by walking into a hawthorn bush.

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Obviously, the people over at Hammer were running out of ways to kill Lee at the end of every movie, so I guess they came up with some bullshit about how vampires are vulnerable to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross.

So yeah, not a great way for Lee to cap off his iconic run as Dracula.

Even though the actor revealed in later interviews that he grew less and less fond of playing the character as time went on, there’s no denying that he injected some new blood into Bram Stoker’s original creation.

Not only was Lee one of the first actors to portray the Count in vivid Technicolor, but horror movie fans also got to see this classic character inflict new levels of gratuitous violence on his victims thanks to Hammer’s famously schlock-heavy approach to filmmaking.

Sadly, that initial spark of creativity is completing lacking in Satanic Rites, which ends this franchise with a dull whimper rather than a deafening bang.

But luckily, I don’t think this film hurt Lee’s legacy in the long run, since he would go on to portray a litany of other iconic movie villains until his death in June 2015 at the age of 93. And that’s on top of his decorated military service and amazing run as a heavy metal recording artist.

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So yeah, I don’t think he gave this movie a second thought after he collected his paycheck … and that’s about all it deserves.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Glade scented candles (because they provide better gothic atmosphere than the movie itself)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: November 3, 1973 (West Germany), January 13, 1974 (UK), October 1978 (US)

-Box office gross: ₤223,450

-Alternative title: Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

-While Hammer produced nine films in their revival Dracula series, Christopher Lee only appeared in seven of them. However, the second and ninth films in the franchise, The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), still feature Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

Satanic Rites wasn’t the last time Lee would be cast as Dracula, since he donned the cape one last time in the 1976 French comedy Dracula and Son.

-Before he played Dracula for the first time in 1958, Lee also got the opportunity to portray Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957. Lee’s run as the creature only lasted one movie, since the remaining six films in the franchise focused on the adventures of Baron Victor Frankenstein, played by Cushing.

-Musical highlight: “Massacre of the Saxons” by Christopher Lee (this song has nothing to do with the movie, I just wanted to remind everyone that Lee recorded a series of heavy metal albums when he was in his late-80s and early-90s).