In November 1963, Columbia Pictures released The Victors, a war film which was years ahead of its time. The cast was filled with stars from America, England, and Europe. Looking back on the film 55 years later, based on the cast alone, it’s a wonder that the film is so overlooked.
Some of the films’ stars were among the biggest names in Europe at the time, or soon would be: Romy Schneider, Elke Sommer, Melina Mercouri, Jeanne Moreau – and that was just the female cast. Eli Wallach, already established on Broadway and in film was joined by Vic Morrow, Peter Fonda, George Peppard, Vince Edwards, and the film’s star – George Hamilton.
If the last few names on that list give you pause and sound like the cast from an episode of The Love Boat or Hollywood Squares, you can’t be blamed. Of course, Peter Fonda went on to fame in Easy Rider, but his career stalled after that, at least in terms of expectations, until he won the Oscar for Best Actor in Ulee’s Gold in 1998.
Followed The A-Team in the 1980s, people forget that, for a time, George Peppard was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had features like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Blue Max under his belt. Vince Edwards was one of those actors who was around for years and years, but never quite made it to the very top.
Vic Morrow is more famous for the way he died (in a helicopter crash while filming the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1982) than for his many films and TV series, such as the WWII series Combat.
Then there is George Hamilton, who has made millions of dollars and a career out of self-caricature, playing an exaggerated version of himself as an artificially tanned Hollywood “playboy.” From the late 1960s until the late 70s, Hamilton was a fixture on bad TV but resurrected his career in 1979 with the vampire spoof Love at First Bite, which was a box office smash.
He also earned kudos in another spoof, Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), but neither of these films was exactly set up to restore his image as a serious dramatic actor.
Hamilton’s best and most critically acclaimed performance came in The Victors, in which he played GI Theodore Trower. The audience follows him from private to sergeant over the course of the American involvement in the war. Hamilton’s performance is spot on as he becomes more and more inured to the carnage going on around him.
The first scene shows Hamilton and Peppard standing guard duty in an English city while a German air-raid is taking place. The bombs fall closer and closer to them. Eventually, they take cover in a dug-out as a bomb hits nearby.
When they come out, an English air-raid warden is casually walking by whistling. He gives them a wave and moves on into the night, bombs falling. “This has been going on for two years, lads. You get used to it,” his expression says.
The films’ scenes were taken from a series of short stories and recollections called The Human Kind by the English author Alexander Baron. Director Carl Foreman changed the characters to Americans to attract an American audience. Foreman is best known for the films Bridge on the River Kwai and High Noon, both epics in the history of film.
The Victors is shot in black and white, which was done on purpose to make it starker. Foreman also used newsreels to update the audience as to where in the story we find ourselves and the background behind what the soldiers on screen are going through.
The newsreels – including an incredibly clear firefight in Sicily that almost looks like it was shot on video – are the only combat scenes in the film. What the audience experiences is the change in the soldiers as they grind through the war, and how they pass the time between combat episodes.
One of the most interesting facets of the film is how it treats the civilian population of the nations depicted, from Italy to Germany at the beginning of the Cold War. Survival, stealing, prostitution, the black market, and other crimes are all shown. Sometimes the Americans are the bad guys, taking advantage of the misfortune of others.
The Victors is an anti-war film. Some of it seems heavy-handed today, but remember, it was filmed in 1963. America was gearing up for Vietnam, had experienced a “draw” in Korea, and was locked in a nuclear arms race with the USSR.
Actually, compared to some of the movies that came later, The Victors is nuanced, despite the end title and some of the narration. The movie is a series of vignettes, including experiences with the Resistance and the liberation of a concentration camp.
The film came out 55 years ago, so we’re not going to “Spoiler alert!” you here, but three scenes, in particular, make The Victors a memorable film.
Peter Fonda (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer) plays Private Weaver in just one scene, but what a scene. Weaver is the most innocent-looking kid you can imagine, and he is sent to the front in France.
By this time, the men of the unit we’re following are battle-hardened in the extreme, having fought in Sicily, Italy, and France. It’s pouring rain in the orchard where the unit is camped, and Weaver finds a small abandoned dog which he begins to feed and pet.
Hamilton’s Trower tells him repeatedly to get rid of it, that this is no place for it. “What are you going to do? Take it with you for the rest of the war?” He tells Fonda to get rid of the dog, he can’t afford to get attached to it.
Sometime later, the unit is getting on trucks, going to the front. We see that Weaver is completely out of his element: he’s a callow young kid and the men around him are crude, dirty, and threatening. As Weaver gets on the truck, Trower stops him, reaches into his overcoat and pulls out the puppy.
He puts it on the ground and shoos it away. As the men in the 6×6 drive off, the pup chases it, wanting to be with Weaver again. The GIs in the truck start taking bets on how many shots it will take to kill it and then proceed to shoot at the animal. What’s a dog’s life to the hundreds of dead men they have seen or the enemies they have shot at? If you’re a dog lover, it will get you.
Only one soldier was shot for desertion in the war: Private Eddie Slovik. A scene in The Victors, however, shows us another execution.
Hamilton, Morrow, and others are rounded up. They are not told what they are doing but are led out into the snow of the Ardennes. Waiting for them is an officer, a priest, and a wooden post. A drum roll becomes Christmas music as a soldier is led to the post, blindfolded, and given a blessing.
The men in our unit are shown standing silently, the looks on their faces saying: “We can’t really be doing this, can we?” But they are. They shoot the man as ordered and go back to camp.
Later, we see George Peppard visiting a hospital. Inside we hear Eli Wallach’s voice, Peppard’s sergeant. When Peppard walks in, he sees the sergeant has had his face burned off. Wallach tells him to get out. Peppard stays, though he is horrified.
The last scene of the film? You should probably see it – it’s good.
The movie was never a box office hit. It was advertised incorrectly: “The Six Most Exciting Women in the world, in the most explosive entertainment ever made.” The font on all of the ads was ahead of its time but made the movie look vaguely psychedelic.
Most of all, it was released on November 18, 1963, four days before Kennedy was killed. After that day, no one wanted to go to the movies and see a downer, but you should check it out.