Director: Mark Robson
The Men (1950), a picture about a paraplegic World War II veteran and the problems he faces adjusting to his disability. Just a year after that film was made, a very similar film on the same subject was made, Bright Victory, about a soldier who has been blinded in North Africa in 1943. Not having seen Bright Victory in many years, I watched it last week when it was shown on TCM as part of the channel's series on disability in film. Because the two films deal with such a similar subject and have many elements and even scenes in common, a direct comparison was inevitable. Even though I found both pictures to be good, I would have to say that in all respects The Men is the better film.
Arthur Kennedy stars as the war veteran, Larry Nevins, who is ambushed by German snipers. The two other men in his Jeep are killed, and Nevins receives serious wounds to his eyes. (One of the men in the Jeep is played by 25-year old Rock Hudson in one of the last bit parts he had at Universal before becoming a featured player and then one of the studio's biggest stars.) When Larry is first told by doctors that he is completely blind, his reaction is a bad one, and these scenes are some of the few highly emotional ones in a picture that is generally restrained about its subject. Sent to the veterans' hospital in Valley Forge, he goes through an intensive training course to help him cope with his disability. As in The Men, these scenes have a documentary feel. While at Valley Forge, Larry meets Judy Greene (Peggy Dow), a young woman who works as a volunteer at the hospital, and the two soon develop a close friendship.
After the training course Larry returns to his family in Florida, where he is engaged to a young woman, Chris Paterson (Julie Adams), whom he hasn't seen in more than two years. After films like The Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, the problems he faces in his return to civilian life have an air of familiarity. Larry has accepted his disability and is managing to cope with its challenges, but his parents and the people around him don't have such an easy time of it. His fiancée's wealthy family in particular are dismissive of his ability to rejoin the mainstream and don't hide their displeasure at the prospect of the marriage. Chris doesn't seem to share this attitude, but she is strongly under the influence of her parents, and it's not totally clear whether her feelings for Larry are more love or loyalty. At the same time, Larry yearns to do something more meaningful with his life than work for his in-laws in a job that is the result of patronage, and he is inspired by the success of a blind lawyer to consider taking up law studies. As the film proceeds, we see how Larry arrives at the decisions that will determine his future.
Chris (Julie Adams) and Larry (Arthur Kennedy)
Bright Victory has an exceptionally able cast—including James Edwards, Will Geer, Minor Watson, Richard Egan, and Jim Backus—but this is Arthur Kennedy's show all the way. A stage actor brought to the attention of Warner Bros. by James Cagney, who wanted him to play the younger brother in City for Conquest (1941), Kennedy went on to work over the next twenty years with some of the best film directors in the business. He became one of the most reliable supporting actors in Hollywood, continuing as he began with Cagney by playing second lead to stars like Bogart, Kirk Douglas, James Stewart, and Robert Mitchum, and earning four Oscar nominations for best supporting actor. Bright Victory, the second of four films Kennedy made with director Mark Robson, was one of the few times he was given a lead role, and it got him an Oscar nomination as best actor. (He lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen but was named best actor by the New York Film Critics, in the view of some as an alternative to Marlon Brando's controversial performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.)
Kennedy is superb in the picture. If his performance lacks the impact of Brando's in The Men—and it does—it's not because of his acting, but because of deficiencies in the conception of the character. Brando's Bud Wilocek is isolated from the people around him by his despair, a tortured individual whose attempt to adjust to his disability is a soul-challenging struggle. Kennedy's Larry in Bright Victory might initially be devastated by the realization that he is totally blind, but in contrast to Bud in The Men, he is a resilient, confident person who quickly confronts and masters the challenges of his changed circumstances. Like Bud he has to cope with hurtful reactions to his condition by those around him, but any internal struggle he might experience is soon resolved. This removes from the situation the constant inner torment that made Brando so compelling in The Men.
Instead, the writers (the film is based on a novel by Baynard Kendrick) inject a couple of tangential subjects to intensify the element of conflict. One is racial prejudice. Early in the film, Larry, a native Floridian, unknowingly sits next to an African American soldier on the train to the hospital at Valley Forge. When he realizes the race of the man he has been chatting to in a friendly way, Larry shuns him. Later this trite situation of the blind person not recognizing race is repeated when Larry unwittingly becomes friends with a blind African American soldier in the hospital, Joe Morgan (James Edwards), then shuns him too when he discovers his race. At the end of the movie there is a pat reconciliation scene in which Larry suddenly abandons his lifelong bigotry and again becomes friends with Joe. This subplot is so compressed that it just doesn't ring true. It's an inadequate way of addressing an issue that might have seemed less of an afterthought had it been more explicitly connected to the film's theme of tolerance, with the change in Larry's attitude explained in a more psychologically convincing way. Instead it seems a contrivance intended to distinguish Bright Victory from similar films and, worse, a distraction from the film's main theme.
Another subplot that diverts attention from the main subject of the film is the well-worn love triangle. Judy, the young hospital volunteer Larry meets at Valley Forge, plainly has romantic feelings for Larry. Yet although he flirts with her, he seems oblivious to her emotions. Even after he does finally recognize the true nature of her feelings, he still chooses to return to his fiancée and his former way of life in Florida. But when he goes back briefly to Valley Forge, they meet up again, and in fact it is Judy who introduces him to the blind lawyer who causes him to rethink his plans for the future, including his engagement to Chris. The whole love-triangle subplot makes Bright Victory seem a more conventional picture than The Men. And like Larry's racial bigotry, it's a measure of a lack of confidence in the power of the subject of disability to carry the film by itself.
Bright Victory lacks not only the thematic focus of The Men, but also the more truthful tentativeness of that film's conclusion. The Men ends hopefully but uncertainly. Things might work out for Brando's Bud. But we get the idea that if they do, it won't be easily, it won't be without problems further along, and it won't be with any permanent sense of security. With its more optimistic outlook, Bright Victory leaves us feeling much more comfortable than does The Men. Despite Larry's problems, in comparison to Bud his future seems predictable and upbeat. There never seems much doubt that Larry will overcome his problems, and that's why in the end his victory over adversity seems entirely too easy.