Saturday, April 25, 2009

cinema obscura: Carl Foreman's "The Victors" (1963)

cinema obscura: Carl Foreman's "The Victors" (1963)

The sole directorial effort of Carl Foreman, the prolific writer and producer, "The Victors" remains one of the most powerful anti-war films to come out of Hollywood.

It was one of Columbia's major productions of 1963 - a three-hour (plus intermission) roadshow production for which the studio harbored Oscar fantasies. The studio's other big Oscar bid that year was Otto Preminger's equally sprawling "The Cardinal." Oddly enough, while "The Cardinal" has surfaced on VHS, laser and DVD, "The Victors" continues to sit on some shelf at Sony, neglected.

Shot in widescreen and black-&-white by Christopher Challis and boasting a huge international cast, "The Victors" works essentially as a series of short stories about the various members of an infantry squad as it treks from Sicily to Germany during the final weeks of World War II, crosscutting their interpersonal relationships with those they share with the enemy and with assorted women. Foreman, who wrote his own script, keeps his film big and hulking while also managing to concentrate on the human interest in his vignettes.

Peter Fonda, for example, pops up as a soldier obsessed with saving a puppy from the ravages of war; George Hamilton is a G.I. disillusioned when the woman he falls for - played by Romy Schneider - becomes a prostitute; Eli Wallach plays a harsh sergeant who has his face blown off in combat and, in the finale, Albert Finney appears as a drunken Russian soldier whose face-to-face encounter with the disgusted Hamilton neatly sums up the insanity of war.

The best moment in the film, for my money, is the stark sequence when a young American deserter is executed in the snow while Frank Sinatra's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background.

There's more, but I haven't been able to see the film in years and it is quickly disappearing from my mind. Too bad.

As a writer, Foreman worked largely with producer-director Stanley Kramer, penning both including "Home of the Brave" (1949) and "The Men" (1950). His last film in tandem with Kramer would be the Fred Zinnemann-directed "High Noon" (1952), whose release coincided with Foreman's "hostile" testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His refusal to cooperate ultimately led to his blacklisting.

Foreman would continue to write movies, using assorted pseudonyms (including Derek Frye) and often without taking credit at all. It was pretty much known that he wrote the screenplay for David Lean's 1957 Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kwai," although credit would go to Pierre Boule, the French author who wrote the novel upon which "Kawi" was based. Boule subsequently took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, although the Academy would honor Foreman for his contribution in 1985, following his death from brain cancer the year before.

As a producer, Forman was responsible for such fine films as "Born Free," "Young Winston" and, best of all, John Dexter's 1970 "The Virgin Soldiers," another vivid (and lost) anti-war film starring Hywell Bennett (and whatever happened to him?), Lynn Redgrave and Nigel Davenport.

But, for me,"The Victors" remains his towering achievement.


David said...

A bit of web surfing for info about "The Victors" brought out the piece you wrote on it. I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have seen it on Times Square in New York, uncut, just days after it opened. Unfortunately, this has also been a curse. Just weeks later, I excitedly dragged a friend out to see it and saw the devastation that had been perpetrated on the original version by studio hacks, apparently over-reacting to the mixed reviews that greeted its premiere. What a horror! The radically shortened edition is a decent film but wonderful sequences are gone and so much of its special atmospheric richness, the very thing that REALLY set it apart, was torn out of it.
Ever since then, I have been trying to discover if the excised footage went the way of the deleted scenes from Peckinpah's "Major Dundee". These were scrapped and thought to be lost forever. Do you imagine that anyone knows the truth about this? Might a decent copy of the original version still exist? Have you read the numerous statements that Pentagon brass so despised the film that they did everything possible to help bury it? Where can one turn for reliable answers to such questions? The internet seems so vast, yet so devoid of good leads regarding "The Victors".

Ken Okuna said...

I vividly recall this movie, walking out of it when I was an impressionable 15 year old into the bright sunlight, I was stunned. This remains for me the most powerful evocation of the horrors of war. I too think the execution sequence was the most powerful. It is based on an actual controversial act of desertion by a mentally retarded soldier. The Romy Schneider storyline is also moving, of course the sergeant with his face blown off. Great movie.

joe baltake said...


I understand the frustrations you feel completely. It's annoying not to be able to find information that should otherwise be easily accessed. Anyway, I'll ask around and if I find a site that might answer your questions, I'll post it here. Keep your fingers crossed.

Jerome said...

I saw this film on TV when I was about 8yrs and it’s stayed with me ever since.
I would love to see the un-cut version mentioned in the comment above. One of the best anti-war movies ever made.

Ted said...

I agree - what a shame that this film has not been shown in it's original condition and length for decades! The uncut version is probably "out there" somewhere, as Mulder might say. But no one has come foward with a copy.

Does Columbia Pictures even still have an uncut version? Who knows.

Peter said...

It was shown today in the UK on BBC2 this afternoon. I watched it with my son and was gripped from start to finish.It was the full length version and the scene with the execution of the deserter was staggering, also the savage beating of the two black GIs sticks in my mind. Thanks for the background info.

McLenaghan Scott said...

Students-this is for you. Art comes from how you feel, here the writer shows the passionate rejection of War as the through line of his screenplay to create
great living art. I remember the news items -their power grows - the sexy mysterious european women
made Belfast girls like me feel like wooden pegs - the fear of men
with knives and guns, militarised or civilian remains. I bow to
Carl Forman's genius, hopeful that yesterday's showing on BBC2 will
achieve it's wider recognition.

joncrel said...

I too saw it yesterday on BBC2, I knew nothing about this film before hand and I was deeply affected by it. I thought it contrasted with the Band of Brothers, but the latter never managed to address the dehumanizing nature of war.

Jeff said...

I saw this movie in England in 1963 - it was obviously the uncut version, as when I saw it again in the 80s on tv - it was insanely whitewashed.
I have been looking for the uncut version ever since with no luck.
In my view, it is the penultimate anti-war movie with layers of symbolism.

Millie said...

This has been shown on the Military Channel. I assume it was cut for broadcast.

Hope it airs again and refreshes your memory...

brian d. said...

The Victors was screened in a new print at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on in March 1st of 2009. I was hoping that a DVD release would follow (apparently Sony has released one in the UK)