If I’ve learnt one thing from watching the films in this marathon, it is that few people (if any) do tormented, lonely men better than Nicholas Ray. Whether its rebellious teenagers, cynical screenwriters or idealistic and self-loathing army captains, I never cease to be surprised by how successfully he is able to introduce us to characters and suggest such deep loneliness and scarring right off the bat, without really feeling the need to provide a backstory. I think one of the reasons these films have such an impact on me is that I love films about people who can’t help but be lonely even in the midst of a lot of people, even when in someone good and nurturing is in love with them and trying to take care of them. I am a sucker for tragedies and the tragedy in these films seems both inevitable and unnecessary at the same time.
Like in Rebel Without A Cause, here again we are thrown right into a situation that just can’t possibly end well regardless of how things turn out. I love the bayonet practice sequence in the beginning and the entire scene in the bar/restaurant where the triangle is revealed to us with minimal exposition.
Another really remarkable thing about this particular film is that Ray manages to bring the same sense of growing claustrophobia and things closing-in on themselves even while shooting on a seemingly endless expanse of desert. I always got the sense that despite being out in the open like that, these two men simply couldn’t get away from each other or the ghosts that haunt them. It’s not like we don’t get wide shots, we do but for the most part of the film, we see these men framed tightly.
I also love the way most of the combat in this film is psychological rather than physical and the way the conflict between Leith and Brand is almost always polite and understated (there are exceptions to this and those scenes worked a little less effectively for me than the ones where their conflict remains unstated).
The scope of the tragedy feels so big and the rivalry seems so deep that it is almost hard to imagine that everything in this film takes place over the course of a single night. I love the way we keep thinking the night is about to end (people say Good Night like multiple times in this film) but then something happens and the night is not quite over after all.
I found Curd Jürgens accent a little grating but really liked Richard Burton on the other hand. Actually, I liked Jürgens performance fine too. The whole ‘woman they both love’ angle seemed mostly like a red herring. The central conflict in the film seems to be much more about the ethics of war and masculine courage. In that sense, this film felt much more like a “guy” movie to me than any of the other Ray films I’ve watched so far.
The scenes in the desert are all really well-shot and I was always engaged in the suspense despite knowing what was likely to eventually happen. The distance between the men and the leader reminded of Beau Travail a little.
I love the way each of these films has at least one scene, one single frame, that’s simply unforgettable that you’d recognize anywhere if you ever saw it again. Here, it’s the image of all these dummies suspended in the room. That ending scene where Brand pins his medal on the dummy — ouch.
Overall, I didn’t like it as much as In A Lonely Place or Rebel but still really great.