As the 1950s progressed, Nicholas Ray found himself in an increasingly precarious, even fraught relationship with filmmaking. He directed 14 films in 10 years, a breakneck pace even for the heyday of the studio system. The films run the gamut from masterpiece to simple director-for-hire assignments, although the ratio is firmly in favor of the former, and each passing year seemed to chart new advancements in Ray’s own proclivities for drink and drugs. This would eventually coalesce into myriad problems with various producers and, by 1963, almost complete physical collapse. Ray’s largest critical and commercial success, 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, long the most obvious source of Ray’s relative popularist amongst film buffs, was also the source of great pain — star James Dean died shortly before the film’s release. 1956’s Bigger Than Life was a more modest critical and financial success, and afterwards Ray was compelled to one degree or another (mostly contractual obligations and a need for money) to follow up those films with The True Story of Jesse James and Bitter Victory (both 1957), and Wind Across the Everglades and Party Girl (both 1958). As biographer Patrick McGillan details in his 2011 biography Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, the European publicity tour for Rebel was an endless stream of questions about the recently departed Dean, already an icon to a newly emboldened youth culture. Ray was drinking heavily and becoming more and more dependent on drugs, and so depressed that he could barely stand the process of jumping from film to film in such quick succession. He was exhausted, the enthusiasms of French critics (notably Godard and Rivette, still in their prime as Cahiers writers) that had briefly lifted his spirits was now quashed by the drudgery of returning to the States to shoot Jesse James (a good film, despite Ray’s disinterest). Pre-production for Bitter Victory was a brief respite for him; accompanied by his trusted screenwriter (and lover), Ray scouted locations in Libya and worked on the script while drinking and gambling at a lavish resort. But the good times couldn’t last. Once actual production started, Ray found himself at odds with his producer and his cast, who couldn’t make heads or tails of Ray’s often intoxicated mumblings (apparently Ray had added heroin use to his repertoire of substances). A young Christopher Lee had some choice words for the experience in his own autobiography, recalling how parts were cast via lottery. He quips: “Everybody got a part they either did not want, or somebody else coveted more than they did.”
Whatever the problems with the production, we’re left now with only the finished film. It’s one of Ray’s best, a somber exploration of cowardice and misery played out over an inscrutable, almost mythic landscape. It’s a love triangle of sorts; Captain Jim Leith (Richard Burton) has been assigned to lead a dangerous mission into a German stronghold alongside Major David Brand (Curt Jurgens). On the evening before the men are to embark on their task, it’s revealed that Brand is now married to Flight Officer Jane Brand (Ruth Roman), who was at one point engaged to Leith before he walked out on her. Ever the sensualist, Ray is quick to juxtapose the laid-back cool of Burton’s laconic ennui with Jurgen’s uptight, buttoned-down fussiness. Jane clearly still loves Leith, but duty and decorum compel her to stand by Brand. Once the men begin the mission, things quickly go south. Brand is unable to kill a German sentry, forcing Leith to step in and do the dirty work. A shootout ensues, and the British commandos barely escape the German stronghold. Now isolated in the middle of the desert, the men must traverse miles of barren sand dunes to reach their extraction point. It’s on this journey that Brand’s disdain for Leith becomes poisonous, his own cowardice metastasizing into a murderous jealousy. The film reaches its tipping point when Brand orders Leith to stay behind with an injured German soldier and an injured British trooper, neither of whom can travel. The rest of the squad will press on, and while Brand says they will come back for Leith, the Captain is not convinced. Instead, Leith shoots the German — a mercy killing — and then tries to shoot his own man. But the gun runs out of bullets, and Leith instead hoists the man and attempts to carry him. It doesn’t last long, as the soldier succumbs to his injuries. This leads to perhaps Bitter Victory’s most famous line, as Leith declares: “I kill the living and I save the dead.” Indeed, Leith is very much one of Ray’s aloof innocents, never “properly introduced to the world they live in,” as it is put so succinctly in Ray’s They Live By Night.
Ray is justly famous for his keen compositional sense, an ability honed via architectural study in his youth. The suburban homes of Rebel and Bigger Than Life are transformed in claustrophobic prisons, stirs and windows becoming bars that envelope and oppress the characters. But Ray is also one of our great landscape artists, from the flat, wide-open spaces of his debut film They Live By Night to the barren wastelands of On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Bitter Victory, and The Savage Innocents (amongst others). Sam Rohdie, writing on Antonioni’s L’aventura, observes: “Landscapes are present in many films but their presence is marginal; essentially, landscape in film is atmosphere for story, a setting for action, there, but in the background. The island seems to be separate from the fiction, at least to one side of it, blank and indifferent, a reality within which a drama may take place, but one nevertheless not concerned with it.” This is a fairly apt description of Ray’s landscape use, too — snow, sand, rocks, even the swamp all become an existential space for human drama to play out, under the unblinking eye of a disinterested universe (several of Ray’s films would make fine double features with Rossellini’s Stromboli, another key Modernist text). Eventually, it’s this landscape itself that ends the human drama, as Leith sacrifices himself to save Brand from a raging sandstorm. It’s like the Earth itself is rising up to swallow our petty human grievances, its power infinitely greater than the conflict between two insignificant men. The film’s first and final images are of combat dummies, burlap sacks vaguely crafted like bodies, with heart shapes stitched to them to indicate the kill spot. It’s a remarkable visual metaphor, rendering these men of war as absurd, faceless bags of sand. We’ll leave the final word to Serge Daney: “There was always Nicholas Ray vs everyone else, as if a privileged link existed between him and cinema, which it was up to us to safeguard. We already knew that his was not an easy career, that it would be destroyed. Even more than Welles, Ray had the profile of the big loser. Except that losing is sometimes winning.”