Release Date(s)1951 (September 13, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor's Note: This review contains the use of a very offensive word. Be forewarned before proceeding.]
Like The Best Years of Our Lives, Bright Victory deals with the re-adjustment to civilian life of a disabled World War II veteran. Based on the novel Lights Out, the film hones in on the physical and psychological obstacles a man must overcome to cope with his disability.
In the first scene, set in North Africa in 1943, Sgt. Larry Nevins (Arthur Kennedy, Lawrence of Arabia) takes a bullet in the head from a German sniper. At an American military hospital, he nurtures hope that an operation will restore him to normal. But when the bandages are removed and doctors evaluate his condition, they find that the bullet has destroyed his optic nerve. Larry is blind and there is no cure. The news is devastating. At one point, he’s discovered trying to commit suicide, but hospital personnel intervene to provide a strong support system.
When Larry has recovered sufficiently, he’s sent to a facility with other wounded soldiers for rehabilitation. There, he meets fellow veteran Joe Morgan (James Edwards), and they become friends. Every day is devoted to exercises to help Larry learn to walk with a cane, navigate his surroundings, and perform ordinary tasks for himself. He dedicates himself to the tough work ahead. Now intent on making the best of his permanent situation, he goes out socially and meets Judy Greene (Peggy Dow, Shakedown). On his long path to recovery, Larry realizes how much he cares for Judy, which complicates things since he’s engaged to Chris (Julia Adams, The Creature from the Black Lagoon), a young woman back home.
In a powerful scene, southerner Larry, walking into the rehab ward with pal Joe, makes an off-handed comment about hearing that soon they’ll be letting “niggers” into the facility. What Larry doesn’t know is that his good buddy is African-American. Joe and everyone else on the ward are shocked into silence, and Larry soon learns why.
Bright Victory is one of those discoveries that makes one realize how many very good films may now be under the radar. Director Mark Robson has fashioned a non-sentimental, realistic look at the battles wounded veterans must face after the gunfire of war is silenced. With a methodical yet fascinating screenplay by Robert Buckner, Robson introduces a theme of tolerance without being preachy. Larry’s physical disability and ingrained bias come into conflict when he accepts a friend for himself, without regard to the color of his skin. The home front is understanding and tolerant of his physical shortcomings, but he must face the prejudices they hold against black people.
Kennedy, a prolific character actor, does an excellent job as the lead in Bright Victory. He conveys a range of emotions—fear, anger, despair, frustration, guilt, conflict, disillusion, and hope as Larry progresses. A scene in which a psychiatrist compels him to telephone his parents and tell them he’s blind is memorable. It’s tough for him, and Kennedy reacts to the phone as if it were a gun pointed at his heart. He fears the news will devastate his folks. In another scene, he stumbles out of bed, feeling his way to a bathroom as he mimes removing imaginary layers that obscure his vision. He also manages to pace Larry’s growing affection for Judy so that it doesn’t seem abrupt. That he still loves Chris complicates his emotions, and Kennedy wears this confusion on his face. Kennedy was nominated for Best Actor for this role, and was in good company. His fellow nominees were Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Fredric March (Bogart won for The African Queen).
Peggy Dow does a nice job as the compassionate girl-next-door type. By contrast, Julia Adams seems lifeless and bland. Will Geer (TV’s The Waltons) and Nana Bryant are believable as Larry’s parents. John Hudson, Murray Hamilton (Jaws), and Hugh Reilly play instructors and patients at the hospital. Other supporting performers include Jim Backus (Rebel Without a Cause) and Richard Egan (The 300 Spartans). Rock Hudson has a small role as one of Larry’s wartime comrades.
Bright Victory was shot by director of photography William Daniels on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Taken from a new 2K master, the Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics has good contrast and detail. At the 2:15 mark, there are very bad scratches but they last for just a few seconds. Rear screen projection is used for close shots of Larry and his soldier pals driving in a jeep. The cinematography is fairly traditional, with master shots moving in to medium shots and then close-ups. There are few tracking shots, with the camera mostly shooting from a fixed position. In addition to Universal Studios, scenes were filmed at the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; the Broad Street station in Philadelphia; Northridge, California; and Florida.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. The dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Even when first brought to the hospital and likely under the influence of painkillers, Kennedy’s Larry speaks clearly, without slurring his words. Larry has no southern accent when we first see him, but when he returns to Florida, he takes on the accents of those around him. The sound effects of the German snipers’ gunfire pierce otherwise quiet surroundings, and ambient noise provides background sounds in a bar. Frank Skinner’s patriotic theme music is heard during the opening credits and is used sparingly during the body of the film.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Gary Gerani
- So Proudly We Hail Trailer (1:41)
- Fixed Bayonets! Trailer (2:37)
- Time Limit Trailer (3:16)
- Boomerang Trailer (2:31)
- Bend of the River Trailer (1:47)
- Paths of Glory Trailer (3:03)
In his commentary, film historian and screenwriter Gary Gerani refers to Bright Victory as a film about “adjusting to a larger, more tolerant world and leaving old bigotries in the dust where they belong.” Both the book and the film begin the same way, with the wartime event that sets the story in motion. The film accurately illustrates the uncertainty of warfare. In the book, Larry undergoes plastic surgery and is given a plastic eye, but his injury was simplified for the film. In both book and film, Larry is not a quitter, though in the book, he remains embittered. In the film, he has greater resolve, accepting and mastering his disability with a promising life ahead. Brief overviews of cast members are given. Other films about blind people are mentioned, particularly The Miracle Worker. Arthur Kennedy started his acting career on Broadway. He was discovered by James Cagney and appeared in many Warner Bros. pictures, working regularly in both films and on TV. He won the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Bright Victory. Director Mark Robson started out as a lawyer before going into the creative side of the movie business. His films include Home of the Brave, Champion, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Peyton Place, and Earthquake. The commentary concludes with the statement, “Bright Victory is one of the best movies Universal ever made.
Bright Victory follows a veteran of World War II from initial despair to acceptance of his condition and willingness to do the hard work necessary to get himself back into a normal way of life. It’s a moving film about confronting disability and prejudices through courage.”
- Dennis Seuling