The highest-profile World War II movie to be released in 1963 was undoubtedly PT 109, a near-Soviet example of state propagandist horseshit starring Cliff Robertson as the younger version of America’s sitting Cold Warrior president. Five months on, JFK would, so to speak, be out of the picture, and a month after that, in December, a very different kind of WW II film hit American theaters.
Don’t let the ironic title fool you: Carl Foreman’s The Victors (tonight at 8pm at the Walter Reade as part of the Film Comment Selects series) feels as triumphant as a rained-out parade, and can easily pass critic J. Hoberman’s proposed litmus test for whether or not a film can be considered legitimately anti-war (which is to say, there’s no way the brass would ever want to screen this one for our boys).
A near-three-hour look at a band of inglorious bastards liberating Europe one country at a time, The Victors has an episodic structure and sudden, idiosyncratic tonal shifts that will draw inevitable comparisons to the Sam Fuller oeuvre. But Foreman’s collagist use of found footage and newsreels (including a nifty title sequence orchestrated by the legendary Saul Bass) and his preference for inky, shadowed imagery, in both interiors and exteriors, veer closer to documentary realism than Fulleresque give-em-hell grit. And how about the stunt casting? This is a film in which a laconic but typically bronzed George Hamilton and a peacocking George Peppard are best buddies; in which Brooklyn-bred ruffian and hard-boiled sergeant Eli Wallach beds arthouse staple Jeanne Moreau; in which Peter Fonda appears briefly as a sensitive grunt who tries to rescue a puppy; and in which one of the Georges gets into a final act knife fight with Albert Finney, playing a soused Russian.
The Victors was the only film ever directed by Foreman, a blacklisted screenwriter and unrepentant Marxist who penned High Noon, The Guns of Navarone, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai (for which he won an Oscar but could only be credited posthumously). Despite the lengthy runtime, there’s next to no combat, and Foreman seems as interested in the effects of war on civilians as he is in the spiritual toll exacted on his progressively weary enlisted men. This prompted Times critic Bosley Crowther to grumble that too much of the film “take[s] place in barrooms or bedrooms” and that, more damningly, Foreman’s anti-patriotic message was “fairly obvious.”
Viewed today, however, it’s striking how artfully Foreman handles those barroom set pieces, deploying elegant long-takes and a writer’s instinct for pacing and natural dialogue. And as for the obviousness of The Victors, Crowther tellingly makes no mention in his review of a scene where some white American soldiers murder two black colleagues for sport, while dozens of others look on and do nothing—the kind of thing that had been happening on the contemporary home front all year long in 1963. And nor does Crowther bring up the passage where a French commander sadistically toys with and then kills a group of Germans who have already waved a white flag. “If you feel you have to make a report about this,” he tells Wallach’s sarge, “just pray your country is never occupied.” If that lesson was as obvious as Crowther claimed, why exactly haven’t we learned it yet?