Ideally, a movie should make sense on its own terms. It is a bad movie when scenes can only be explained by external logic, by what was going on in the mind of the director or screenwriter. John Ford was once asked, regarding the movie Stagecoach (1939), why the Indians chasing the stagecoach didn’t just shoot the horses, and his answer was, “Then there wouldn’t have been any movie,” which was an example of external logic. Actually, he was just being a smart aleck, because he could have said that the Indians wanted to capture the horses alive, which would have made sense, and more importantly, would have made the scene explicable in terms of internal logic alone.
A big problem with Bitter Victory, a movie about British commandos ordered to make a raid on Benghazi to steal documents from the German headquarters, is that too much of what happens in the movie is explicable only in terms of external logic. Nicholas Ray, the director, had some idea in his head about how things should turn out, which leads to one forced scene after another. The first one occurs in England before the commandos set out on their mission. Captain Leith (Richard Burton) sees Jane (Ruth Roman) sitting at a table in a military night club. No sooner does he recognize her than Major Brand (Curd Jürgens) walks up beside him and asks Leith if he would like to meet his wife. What follows is a scene reminiscent of Casablanca, in which it becomes clear that Leith and Jane were once lovers, and cryptic remarks pass back and forth between them while Brand takes it all in, not understanding the particulars of the remarks but gleaning their general significance nevertheless. Because we have seen this sort of thing before, we question it more than we might have when seeing it for the first time.
In other words, the most natural thing for Leith to do when Brand asks him if he wants to meet his wife would be to say, “You mean Jane? I knew Jane before the war. I was just going over to say ‘Hi.’” Now, of course they would not admit they had been lovers, but there is no reason for Leith and Jane to deny they even knew each other, especially since their innuendoes make their previous relationship so obvious. By concealing that they knew each other and then making the concealment obvious, they only made things worse. So, why did they do this? Internal logic fails us here, and we are forced to reach for external logic. Ray wanted Brand to find out that Leith and Jane were once secretly lovers so that he would become jealous, and so Ray concocted this hurried, unrealistic scene to that end.
After the mission is complete, the commandos have to escape by walking through the desert. However, two men are too injured to walk. Brand tells Leith he will have to stay behind with the wounded men until they die and then catch up with the rest of the men. That makes no sense. If they are going to die anyway, just leave them behind. Furthermore, in a much later scene, Brand reveals his orders, written down on a piece of paper, that their mission is so important that if men are wounded, they are to be left behind. Now it really makes no sense.
It gets worse. When Brand tells Leith to stay behind with the wounded, a soldier suggests making stretchers to carry them. Leith dismisses the idea, saying that the men would bleed to death in an hour. Sounds good to me. If they have scruples about leaving the men behind, carry them in stretchers for an hour, and then when they die, leave them in the desert. Instead, Leith stays behind with the wounded, and then, after everyone is gone, kills them. Actually, he only kills one of them, because he runs out of bullets. So then he decides to carry the other wounded man all by himself. You see, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher is a bad idea, but tossing him over your shoulder and staggering through the desert is a good idea. Conveniently, the man dies, and Leith is able to catch up with the rest of the men.
External logic to the rescue. The purpose of all this absurdity is to establish that Brand wanted Leith to kill the wounded for him, and then hold him responsible for doing so. That would be fine, if that could have been established coherently. But since internal logic fails us here, we have to reach for the director’s motivations instead.
After a while, the men run out of water. They come across a well, but before anyone takes a drink, someone suggests that the Germans may have poisoned it. The men put pressure on Brand to sample the water to see if it is safe to drink. Rather than show fear, he takes a swig. It tastes all right, but Leith says it is too soon to tell. So, they leave the well without drinking any of the water. But if they were not going to drink the water regardless of what happened when Brand swallowed some, what was the point of Brand’s risking his life by drinking some of it in the first place? This contrivance can only be explained by Ray’s desire to show how Brand can be intimidated by his fear that others may think him a coward.
When Brand sees a scorpion crawling near Leith’s leg during a rest period, he does not warn Leith, hoping that Leith will be bitten. Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin) sees the scorpion too, but does nothing. After Leith is bitten, Mekrane tries to kill Brand for letting the scorpion bite Leith. But if Mekrane cares so much about Leith, why didn’t he just walk over to the scorpion and step on it?
Finally, before Leith dies, he asks Brand to tell Jane that she was right and he was wrong. Instead, when Brand gets back to England, he tells Jane he did not hear what Leith said, but he probably said that he loved her. We know Brand is the sort who would lie about such a thing, but why this particular lie? As with the scorpion scene, I don’t think even external logic can make sense of this one.
If the movie is so illogical that not even external logic can make sense of some of it, we have to ask ourselves why film critics waste any time on it at all. Now it is metalogic to the rescue. Nicholas Ray is one of those directors that a lot of critics regard as an auteur, which means that all his movies will receive attention no matter how bad they are.