Libya during the Second World War and the Allies are planning a raid on a Nazi base where they are holding a variety of secret documents that will be vital in their combat missions, and are precisely the sort of thing their enemy would like to get their hands on. With that foremost in their minds, the Allies have assembled a group of soldiers under the South African Major Brand (Curt Jurgens), though he is not popular with the men who regard him as weak-willed and liable to get them into danger unnecessarily. For that reason he feels he must prove himself, though he has a distraction in the shape of Captain Leith (Richard Burton), who is far better liked - and happens to have carried on an affair with Brand's wife Jane (Ruth Roman).
There was a plethora of war movies in the nineteen-fifties as the now not-so-certain future, never mind the present, gave way to the relative certainties of World War II, and just about every major director of the day had a go at one. Bitter Victory was cult director Nicholas Ray's effort in that genre, and as a United States-French production found itself much liked by the cognoscenti in France who held it up as a pinnacle of soul-searching battle fatigued yarns that spoke to them far better than any simplistic heroics might have done. Other audiences have been less supportive down the years, with Ray's trademark psychological approach not winning him many new fans, no matter how individual the results were.
Really this was less a battle between Allies and Nazis and more a battle between Brand and Leith, with Brand more uptight and possibly deadly, and Leith the laidback yet doubt-filled counterpart. Together they would not have made such a great team, which was why it was something of a mystery why any top brass would have united them to lead such a vital mission for anyone could see they were going to clash, and either or neither of them may not have made it out alive. Still, it did mean the sparks would fly when they butted heads over the correct method to succeed, and what would a war movie be without tension between the characters, be they on opposite sides or sometimes the same one?
Jurgens yet again demonstrated his narrow range, fine when we were supposed to boo him for his bad behaviour, but less likely to elicit sympathy when events turn against him, so we were more invested in seeing Jane get together with Leith than Brand staying with her. As if aware of this, the script, based on a French novel and with contributions by Ray, critic Gavin Lambert and The Poseidon Adventure author Paul Gallico as well as original creator Rene Hardy, was unmistakably perverse in its denial of such a satisfying conclusion, and that obstinacy in preventing things going as custom (some would say cliché) dictated was an identifying feature of the drama. The trouble with that being that actually sitting through it would be more frustrating than presumably those writers intended.
The mission itself goes fairly well - at first. There’s just the one casualty on the good guys' side, and the remaining Allied soldiers manage to escape into the night with those precious documents, dodging the frantic Nazi patrols. Yet it was when our heroes made it out into the desert that the situation grew tricky, with not much going to plan and the addition of a largely unwanted hostage in a German officer who they have to take since they cannot risk leaving him behind to blow the entire operation. Then there's the lack of camels, water and shelter to contend with, and Brand's team featured a couple of well-known faces among them such as Christopher Lee as a sergeant and especially Nigel Green who stole his scenes from under the noses of the two leads. Burton was probably giving the second best performance after him, appropriately anguished at having the power over who lived or died, and the mood was gruelling enough to have you feel every step on every dune, but it remained a bit of a slog, pretty much by design. Music by Maurice Leroux.