Reeling Backward: Bright Victory (1951)
Arthur Kennedy anchors this surprisingly sensitive portrait of an American G.I. coming to terms with blindness, his own racism and a life of stability versus one based upon pure love.
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Arthur Kennedy was a quintessential “that guy” of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a respected character actor known for his unprepossessing, naturalistic style while usually filling supporting roles, often as cops or morally dubious authority figures. He started on the stage, winning a Tony for playing Biff in the original 1949 Broadway run of “Death of a Salesman,” jumped to movies and stayed busy there for the next quarter-century, while returning often to the stage to work with Arthur Miller.
He’s solid in a rare leading role in “Bright Victory,” a 1951 drama from director Mark Robson (“The Harder They Fall”) about an American G.I. adjusting to life back home after being blinded by a German sniper. I’m not entirely certain he was exactly right for the part, though.
He plays Larry Nevins, a Southerner from a well-to-do family in (fictional) Seminola, Fla. Kennedy was a Massachusetts kid who couldn’t quite erase the accent from his dialogue, and thankfully doesn’t attempt a Florida cracker one. This contrasts sharply with the Southern-friend lilt all the actors employ when Larry goes home after initial treatment.
Kennedy was also in his late 30s when the film came out, and looked it with a sharp peninsula of a hairline — a little old to comfortably play a character who’s probably 25 at most. It’s the Hollywood way, even today: performers consigned to youngster roles until they’re 30, and then play that age for the next 25 years.
He must’ve convinced someone better than me. “Bright Victory” earned Kennedy a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and it also scored another nod for Best Sound, Recording.
It fared better at the Golden Globes, winning the screenplay award for Robert Buckner with additional nominations for best dramatic picture and Kennedy for actor. It also earned the The Robert Meltzer Award from the Writers Guild of America, for “Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene.”
This no doubt is owed to the film’s sensitive portrayal of American soldiers blinded during World War II. Larry gets it when he and a couple of buddies — one played by Rock Hudson in an early role — are attacked on the front lines of North Africa while trying to lay communication wire to a stranded unit.
He’s at first hopeful that his sight might be restored, but is given the bad news that his optic nerve was destroyed at Valley Forge General Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pa. — where they actually shot much much of the film. There the soldiers form new bonds of camaraderie as they learn to walk with a cane, tell time by touching the dials of special wristwatches they’re all given and eventually learning Braille.
Larry forms a friendship with Joe Morgan (James Edwards), unaware that he’s Black. He casually uses the n-word, leading to his ostracizing from the group for his deep-seated racism. One of the doctors explains that in his new life, Larry has to learn not to prejudge people based on their color or creed and take them as they come.
It’s not exactly radical stuff, and the movie doesn’t exactly follow up very well on Larry’s journey toward enlightenment, but it was fairly bold thematic material in 1951, before the nascent civil rights movement had even begun. Edwards was a pioneering actor who portrayed strong, intelligent African-American characters onscreen years before Sidney Poitier came along.
The second half of the movie is mostly taken up with romantic intrigue, including an unlikely triangle Larry finds himself in. Before the war he’d been betrothed to Chris (Julie Adams), the daughter of a wealthy barrel manufacturer, with the promise of a cushy job for life.
But while convalescing at Valley Forge, he falls in with Judy Greene, a friendly “nice girl” who volunteers her time socializing with wounded soldiers. Or rather, it should be said that she falls for Larry. This being the rare movie of the time where the woman is clearly the pursuer and the guy the hesitating target of that pursuit.
Played by Peggy Dow, who gave up a promising acting career after just a few credits for marriage, family and charity work, Judy lets Larry know in no uncertain terms that if Chris isn’t willing to accept him now that he’s blind, she’s happy to wait for him. She even takes him for a weekend trip in the mountains with her sister (Joan Banks) and her husband, Bill, played affably by Jim Backus — who, people forget, actually had a multivaried acting career before playing Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Larry thought his relationship with Judy was just a friendship, and is surprised when he touches her face and finds the tears streaming down it. She kisses him passionately — again, rare to see a woman initiate physical intimacy in a 1951 movie — and he breaks away from her, citing his commitment to Chris.
When Larry goes back to Florida, the adjustment is rather difficult — for more reasons than just his new disability. He snipes at his mother (Nana Bryant) for referring to “our Negroes” leaving for better jobs up North during the war.
Chris seems emotionally all-in on still marrying Larry, but her parents are hesitant given the unabashed prejudice against the disabled in 1943. They eventually give in, with the promise of some inconsequential but permanent job for Larry. This scratches at his sense of pride, and he’d rather leave town to study law.
Faced with the prospect of a hard life taking care of Larry — who will at least have a lifetime monthly pension of $190 form the Army to fall back on, or $39,000 a year in today’s dollars — Chris bails, and Larry is extremely kindhearted in letting her go without blame.
This, of course, sets him up for a reunion with Judy, where Larry finally pledges himself. He also bumps into Joe on the train to their next retraining post, and renews their friendship (without quite getting around to apologizing for his racial epithets).
“Bright Victory” isn’t anything terribly daring or original, but it’s an interesting and worthy picture that deserves another look. It’s now out in a very nice Blu-ray reissue from Kino Lorber, who supply a lot of the fare for these columns.