Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Bitter Victory (1957)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Bitter Victory (1957, Fr./US) (aka Amère Victoire)

In Nicholas Ray's powerful, black and white CinemaScopic anti-war drama set during WWII:

  • the opening scene (behind the title credits) set at a British base - a long shot of hanging stuffed dummies or mannequins used by British soldiers for target practice training - book-ended in the closing scene
  • the film's conflict and rivalry between two British officers (both untried in real battle), selected by General Paterson (Anthony Bushell), who were on a risky mission to cross the N. African desert (in Libya) and search for German documents: introverted yet courageous Welsh archaeologist and recruit Captain Jimmy Leith (Richard Burton) and South African-born Major David Brand (Curd Jurgens), a self-absorbed, petty, starchy and by-the-book career soldier-commander ultimately revealed to be a coward
  • the developing love triangle between the jealous Brand, his pretty Army officer wife Jane Brand (Ruth Roman), and her ex-lover Leith - making the story both a romantic and military conflict between the two men
  • the tense sequence of the mission - the two officers were disguised as Arabs, and sent from Cairo, Egypt to break into a safe in General Rommel's Nazi headquarters in Benghazi, to steal secret documents; Leith was forced to stab a sentry to death in the back with a dagger when the cowardly and trembling Brand failed to act
  • Leith was ordered to stay behind at the Benghazi base to care for two seriously wounded men (one a German, another a British soldier in Leith's group); while a bunch of beetles scattered from beneath the dying German's writhing body, Leith shot the man who was begging for his life and displaying a family photo: "We were so happy before the war, Help me!", but when the Britisher begged for his own mercy killing ("Hurry up...Don't drag things out. You do what you've got to do. Be quick about it"), the gun clicked empty; Leith carried the second dying man out of the desert on his back
Decision-Making: Death in the Desert
Leith's Murder of Dying German Soldier
Leith's Choice: To Kill or Spare
Seriously-Wounded Britisher Spared
  • later, Leith met up with his old Arab friend and helpful bearded protector Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin), and was told that the British soldier he was carrying was a corpse; Leith chuckled crazily and muttered the film's absurdist conclusion: "I kill the living and I save the dead"
  • it was basically a failed mission after the acquisition of the documents and Leith's rendezvous with Brand - the return trek in the desert was on foot after their expected camel guides were murdered
  • the lengthy dialogue between Brand and the contemptuous Capt. Leith as they strode across the desert, with Leith's denunciation of Brand's cowardice: "You didn't have the courage to kill the sentry, and you don't have the courage to kill me....You're afraid to go in and kill with your bare hands. That's what makes a soldier and destroys you as a man...You have the Christian decency that forbids killing a dying man, but approves the work of a sharpshooter...So the fine line between war and murder is distance. Anybody can kill at a distance with the same sort of courage that , but when it comes to the dirty work, you have to call in the civilian ...I despise you for the professional coward that you are. You left me in the desert so there wouldn't be any witnesses left to the real Major Brand, didn't you? Therefore, my death becomes essential to you. I'm a kind of mirror of your own weakness, and it's unbearable, isn't it?"; when Brand asked if Leith was goading him to murder, Leith answered: "Perhaps...perhaps because I haven't the courage to do it myself"
  • in a concluding betrayal -- Major Brand neglected to warn Capt. Leith of a deadly scorpion crawling up his pants leg, and he was bitten with a lethal sting; at night, Mekrane vengefully attempted to attack Brand with a knife (holding him responsible for Leith's scorpion bite), but was instead killed by Brand's gunfire
  • Captain Leith (with gangrene setting in) was mercilessly left to die by Brand in the desert - with only some water and a gun; Brand coldly noted his orders: "You must not be captured by the enemy. If it endangers your mission, you're not obliged to save the wounded"; Leith made one final attempt to goad Brand into killing him: "I wonder if you have the courage to finish me off now...You're not the sort of man, Brand, who'd kill for his woman. But you'd murder to stop her from finding out that you're a coward, wouldn't you? Brand - the returning hero. A stuffed dummy with a medal on his chest, and all the witnesses dead.... You're not a man, Brand - you're an empty uniform starched by authority so that it can stand up by itself" - Brand replied: "But I'm standing"; Leith continued: "You know, Brand, for the first time, I almost have some respect for you. You'd better go now. You'll miss the column...If you haven't got the courage to kill me, don't try to save me" - shortly later, Leith perished in a deadly desert sandstorm (ghibli)
  • when Brand returned to the base, his distraught wife asked about the fate of her true love Leith - she was told: "The men think I killed him...I wanted to save him, but it was too late"; upset, she held the arm of one of the mannequin-dummies, as Brand told her Leith's final words: "Tell Jane I love her...Those would have been my last words too"
  • in the ironic conclusion, during a brief ceremony, the undeserving Brand received the Distinguished Service Order Medal - praised as "the hero of Benghazi" - although the mission was in reality a failure; when the medal was being presented, Jane walked out and decided to leave Brand for good
  • in the film's ending, the self-loathing Brand pinned his meaningless medal on the stuffed dummy that Jane had touched

Stuffed Mannequins for Military Training

Captain Jimmy Leith (Richard Burton)

Major David Brand
(Curd Jurgens)

Leith's Dagger Stabbing of Guard

Brand Carrying Britisher's Corpse: "I kill the living and I save the dead!"

On the Desert March: Contemptuous Leith vs. the Cowardly and Unfit Brand

Brand with His Wife Jane Back at the Base

Brand Pinning His Medal on a Mannequin


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