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 Prisoner (1955) review-A real hidden gem

Thanks to the advent of social media and the YouTube comments section, words like “worst” or “epic” have really lost their meaning in the current pop culture discourse, based on how frequently they’re used online.

“Obscure” should be added that list as well, since I’ve seen people use this term to describe properties that are decidedly not hard to track down and consume.

Rule of thumb: if you can watch a movie or tv show on a multi-billion dollar streaming platform, then chances are it’s not the entertainment equivalent of finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But I think calling Peter Glenville’s The Prisoner (1955) “obscure” is a pretty safe bet, since the film doesn’t even show up immediately when you type it into IMDB’s search bar.

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But if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of Mill Creek Entertainment’s “5 Classic War Films” DVD pack like myself, then you should definitely give this thought-provoking drama a look.

In terms of plot, Sir Alec Guinness stars as a nameless Cardinal accused of high treason by a nameless interrogator (Jack Hawkins) following the events of World War II.

Even though the country remains nameless as well, the basic conceit is that the Hawkins represents the kind of Eastern European government that traded in the fascistic boot heel of the Nazis for some form of Communist authoritarianism after the conflict subsided.

As such, Hawkins’ intentions to force Guinness to confess to trumped up charges are made clear from the very start, and a compelling battle of wills between the two men ensues for the next 90 minutes.

Obviously, the film’s biggest draw is the back-and-forth between Guinness and Hawkins; two classically trained actors who are experts at conveying complex emotions through looks and body language alone.

And they don’t disappoint here, since the film remains a compelling watch even though half of the runtime is just the two men talking in a room.

The conversations that take places between the two is almost akin to a well-choreographed fight scene, with plenty of unexpected verbal jabs and parries to keep the audience on their toes.

Guinness is especially impressive in his role as the nameless Cardinal, since he’s willing to undertake a rather unflattering transformation from a dignified man of the cloth to an emotionally shattered shell of his former self.

For mainstream audiences who are used to seeing Guinness take on mentor roles like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it might be a little upsetting to watch him undergo such psychological torture that reduces him to a nervous, groveling wreck by the film’s end.

But putting in such a raw, unfiltered performance definitely left a big impression on me, and Guinness should be applauded for taking this kind of risk.

Similar to other stage plays turned into films like Frost/Nixon and Glengarry Glen Ross, The Prisoner also benefits from a script that’s was polished way ahead of time, which gave director Peter Glenville the opportunity to focus most of his energy on filling in the gaps.

While some filmmakers might have just let Bridget Boland’s dialogue speak for itself, he decided to give this story a full cinematic treatment anyway, with plenty of gorgeous cinematography to serve as the backdrop.

Some of these shots even display elements of German Expressionism, since he uses harsh shadows, moody lighting, and gothic architecture to highlight the oppressive nature of Guinness’ captivity.

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And even though most the action takes place indoors, Glenville does his best to keep the audience’s attention through utilizing strategic blocking and dynamic camera movements.

However, not every decision the director made for this screen adaptation is a winner, since he decided to include this time-wasting subplot featuring one of Guinness’ guards, who is having an affair with a married woman.ThePrisoner2

I’m not sure if this subplot was included in the original play, but it seems like something a clueless producer lobbied to include in film to appeal to a larger audience, even though it’s cliched and has next to no bearing on the overall story.

The Prisoners’ ambiguous setting also threw me off during my initial viewing, since I went in blind and spent way too much time trying to figure out which European country this was supposed to take place in.

But after doing my research, the film was much easier to digest with a second viewing and it gave me the opportunity to pick up on the smaller nuances of Guinness and Hawkins’ performances.

And at the end of the day, the mere presence of these two acting heavyweights gives the filmmakers a pretty solid foundation to work with from the outset, with Boland’s tight script and Glenville’s smart directing elevating the story beyond just being a stage play put to film.

This movie’s obscure status might make it a little difficult to track down, but it’s definitely worth making a couple clicks on Amazon to order a Blu-Ray copy.

Just make sure you order the right version of The Prisoner, unless you’re in the market for some high definition pornography or old school British sci-fi.

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Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (because Guinness and Hawkins are the acting equivalent of putting chocolate and peanut butter together)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 19, 1955 (UK), December 11, 1955 (US)

-While the film’s setting remains ambiguous, Guinness’ character is based on real-life cardinals Aloysius Viktor Stepinac and József Mindszenty, who underwent similar show trials in Croatia and Hungary, respectively.

-According to TV Guide, this film was banned from both the Venice and Cannes film festival for being “anti-Catholic” and “anti-Communist.” However, residents of Ireland slapped it with a “pro-Communist” label.

-Two years after The Prisoner was released, Hawkins and Guinness would go on to star in The Bridge on the River Kwai, although the pair wouldn’t share any scenes together. However, the two would be reunited on screen in 1962 for director David Lean’s next big epic Lawrence of Arabia.

The Prisoner would go on to be nominated for five BAFTA awards for acting (Hawkins and Guinness), script writing (Boland) and best overall film (from Britain or any other source).

-The obscurity of Peter Glenville’s The Prisoner might have something to do with the fact that there are more famous pop culture properties with the same name, including a 1967 British science fiction series starring Patrick McGoohan.

Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) review- Uncle Sam gets creative with his recruitment techniques

The 1940s was truly a golden age in terms of Hollywood produced war propaganda.

Not only would these productions play as cartoons or documentary shorts before the beginning of a feature film, but sometimes they would take the form of the main attraction itself.

This can even be seen through a screen classic like Casablanca, which was made entirely to capitalize on America’s decision to enter the Second World War and reassure the US public that their government had made the right decision.

John Farrow’s Commandos Strike at Dawn, released at the very tail end of 1942, operates on that very same logic, since its plot and characters are meant to serve as an stand-in for America’s transition from neutrality to outright involvement in the Allied war effort.

In this film, the role of audience surrogate doesn’t go to Humphrey Bogart but Paul Muni, who plays a mild-mannered Norwegian fisherman whose sleepy village is taken over by the Third Reich in 1939.

While Muni’s character originally believes that the best course of action is to simply cooperate until the war blows over, he’s gradually pushed to violence after witnessing the atrocities committed by the Nazis and recruits a squad of British commandos to help liberate his home.

Now, when I use the term “propaganda” to describe this film, I don’t use it in an entirely negative sense. After all, I’m perfectly willing to stomach some ham-fisted messaging in my entertainment as long as the end product is well-made.

For example, even though Casablanca is a pretty transparent World War II allegory, it’s done with a certain level of sophistication and the film contains a pretty timeless love story that still strikes a cord with audiences to this day.

Unfortunately, the same really can’t be said for Commandos Strike at Dawn, since the filmmakers settle for cheap gimmicks that relegate the production to being simply a product of its time.

This kind of tone is established in the first couple seconds of the film, when the opening credits prominently display all the flags of the Allied powers, including the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. This kind of intro immediately dates the film, especially with the Cold War being right around the corner.

Even though there are times where the movie’s attempts to be timely do work out in its favour (like how the characters mention the persecution of Jews at a time when they were being slaughtered in concentration camps in real life) this kind of tacky filmmaking has way more misses than hits.

Although Muni is a compelling lead, he’s saddled with a lot of corny lines about how “nobody’s going to win the war for anybody else,” which sound like they are meant to lecture the 1942 audience rather than inform the movie’s characters.

The rest of the film’s cast is even more disposable.

Despite the fact that all the major players are given a long introduction through a fairly impressive tracking shot, most of them disappear halfway through the movie as the narrative focuses exclusively on Muni and his mission to coordinate a rescue operation.

The worst example of this is probably Muni’s love interest, who doesn’t affect the plot in any way and only seems to exist to reassure the audience that their protagonist has (if I may borrow a term from Red Letter Media) a “case of the not gays.”

The writers don’t even have the decency to provide us with a main antagonist, and settle for flooding the screen with a bunch of nameless German foot soldiers instead.

With that being said, the one segment of the cast who do manage to make an impression are the “British” commandos themselves.

The climactic clash between them and the Nazis feature some really impressive stunt work, which probably has something to do with the fact that they were played by real-life members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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What’s even better is that director John Farrow compliments their military acumen with some good production decisions, since a lot of explosions are done in-camera and aren’t watered down by post-production trickery.

With that being said, basically none of these commandos are given personalities or even a single line of dialogue, which means it’s hard to get emotionally invested in this climax beyond admiring the pure spectacle of it.

And that’s probably the biggest problem with Commandos Strike at Dawn: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Sure, the filmmakers make a big show at the beginning about how they want to present an intimate character piece, but it’s clear by the final frame of the film that that’s all window dressing.

Instead, they’d much rather settle for showcasing flashy pyrotechnics and real-life military hardware, something that would have worked as long as they fully committed to this idea.

As a result, Farrow and his team fall victim to the classic filmmaking mistake of trying to make a movie for everyone, which inevitably means that they made a movie for no-one (especially by 2018 standards).

(Side note: it’s clear that the final climactic battle wasn’t shot in the early in the morning, but I guess “Commandos Strike at Mid-Day” wouldn’t have looked great on a movie poster.)

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Bits & Bites Original (because it should have stuck to doing one thing, instead of mixing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 1942.

-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated).

-This film was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards (the same year Casablanca won Best Picture).

-Paul Muni is probably best know for starring in the original Scarface from 1932, when the title character was an Italian gangster named Tony Camonte.

-Even though he’s kind of slumming it in this movie, Muni has five Oscar nominations for Best Actor under his belt, with an eventual win in 1937 for starring in The Story of Louis Pasteur.

-Unexpected cameo: Lillian Gish (a silent movie star best known for playing the pivotal role of Elsie Stoneman in the Birth of a Nation) makes her first screen appearance in almost a decade by portraying one the Norwegian villagers under Nazi siege.

-According to IMDB, the entirety of this film was shot on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Castle Keep (1969) review-You got your Vietnam in my WWII movie

When I originally picked up a DVD titled “5 Classic War Films” for $4.99 I didn’t expect it to include a movie like Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep.

Judged solely on the low price and the cheesy posters featured on the cover, I strapped myself in to watch some bottom-of-the-barrel, exploitative trash.

The hokey plot synopsis for this film specifically didn’t help matters either, since it centres around a rag-tag group of American soldiers tasked with defending a medieval castle full of priceless art pieces during the Battle of the Bulge.

However, while Castle Keep doesn’t attain “classic” status, as advertised, the filmmakers should be given credit for trying to inject some art house sensibilities into an otherwise formulaic war movie.

Within the first 20 minutes, the movie stomped my expectations into the ground by establishing a detached, laid-back tone that doesn’t initially seem to fit with other “man-on-a-mission” World War II epics of the time (think The Dirty Dozen).

Instead of getting down to business and showing the audience how the castle is being fortified for the on oncoming German assault, most of the first and second act features our main characters just farting around.

They drink, they smoke, they fuck (with several trips to a nearby brothel) and they carry on inane conversations that don’t really go anywhere. Mid-way through the movie one of the soldiers spouts off about how indestructible Volkswagen Beetles are, and that this particular model of car will inherit the earth after the war wipes out all human life.

Coupled together with a dream-like score that seems like it jumped right out of an old perfume commercial, and Castle Keep becomes a truly bizarre viewing experience, to the point where I even wondered if I put in the wrong DVD by mistake.

In the last 40 minutes the story does eventually turn into a more conventional direction, with plenty of explosions and gritted teeth that would satisfy even the most jaded action junky. However, this kind of action climax gets so exaggerated that it veers off into the direction of satire, especially when Germans soldiers start using fire trucks to mount the castle walls.

To be fair, most of these strange choices make sense if you put this film’s release in the right historical context.

By 1969 the United States had been escalating their involvement in the Vietnam War for over a decade, with no real end in sight. With that in mind, it’s understandable that Americans like director Sydney Pollack would have become disillusioned with traditional military heroics and decided to make a film about the tedium and pointlessness that’s involved in a protracted foreign conflict.

Actor Peter Faulk (who plays sergeant Rossi Baker) even reveals the filmmakers’ intentions at one point during the chaotic climax by blurting out “What the hell war is this?”

While the filmmakers should be applauded for this kind of ambition, Castle Keep is not without its problems.

Certain sections of the film suffer from poor ADR and sound mixing, to the point where you can’t even tell which character is supposed to be talking.

Because the movie adopts the look and feel of a waking dream, the middle part of the story really drags, something that could have been solved by chopping at least 20-30 minutes off the runtime.

And while the individual actors do a really good job with the material they’re given, it doesn’t stop them from being flat caricatures with no real depth. This usually what happens when characters are written to hammer home a theme rather than to tell a good story.

Overall, even though I think calling Castle Keep “pretentious” would be a bridge too far, I wouldn’t fault anybody else for using that label to describe it.

After all, the filmmakers are obviously much more concerned about waxing poetic on lofty topics like war, art, and sex rather than telling a good story with fleshed out characters, which definitely prevented me from engaging with the movie on an emotional level.

With that being said, Castle Keep did at least take me by surprise and give me something to think about once it was over. Hopefully this becomes a re-occurring theme throughout my adventures into the darker corners of Corner Store Cinema.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Skor butter toffee (because it looks fancy, but it’s still really just cheap candy on the inside)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: July 23, 1969

-Budget: $8 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $1.8 (Canada/US)

-Two years after this film was released, Peter Faulk (one of the main supporting cast members) would go on to find great success by staring in the series Columbo. Faulk ended up playing the titular, unassuming detective in a grand total of 69 specials, with the final episode airing on Jan. 30, 2003.

-Mass murderer Ronald Defeo Jr. claimed that he was watching Castle Keep right before he shot his parents and four siblings to death in Amityville, New York on Nov. 13, 1974.

-While this film ultimately flopped, both critically and financially, director Sydney Pollack would bounce back with his next project They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which landed him 10 Oscar nominations (including one for Best Director).