THE VICTORS (1963) is a war movie that takes its subject seriously but may be even more powerful as an anti-war film than the comedy DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, which came out the following year. It stars George Peppard, Eli Wallach and Melina Mercouri, and has an early film appearance by Peter Fonda.
The story, adapted from a collection of short stories titled THE HUMAN KIND by Alexander Baron, based on his war experiences (British, but changed to Americans in the film), follows several American soldiers as they fight their way across Europe in World War 2. Like the book, the film presents a series of short stories that tie together.
The film contrasts the grim reality of the war with seamlessly integrated American propaganda reels and speeches by President Roosevelt. The President is seen several times describing the war as a noble conflict, a war to end war, a war that will provide a lasting peace for our children.
Unlike other war movies of the time, THE VICTORS portrays the soldiers not as sacrificing heroes (though they could be seen that way), but as average guys doing their jobs while trying to stay alive. Most of the storytelling focuses on what happens during those long stretches of marching and occupation and carousing when the bullets aren’t flying. The soldiers are portrayed as entirely human and despite their flaws, very likable.
The anti-war element of the film is driven by the evident contrast between the war’s noble aims and its grim truths presented with an even hand and without sentiment. Despite the noble aims of the war, human nature is what it is. In one scene, White soldiers beat up a pair of Black soldiers. In other scenes, destitute and lonely women are sexually exploited by the occupiers. The soldiers are often unthinkingly cruel to other soldiers and the locals. They fight over women. These things are shown as a matter of fact and without moralizing, but the point is clear. The war got rid of Hitler (thank God) but people are people, and war will go on, making the notion of war itself seem futile.
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