Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.
Sometimes Turner Classic Movies comes through. Bright Victory is one of those movies I haven’t been able to find since I started the Oscar lists. There are a few movies that I’m having trouble finding, some of which I know I’ll never properly locate. Those films that are missing, have rights issues, or exist only in a single archive somewhere will likely be forever lost to me as well. But then there are movies like Bright Victory that simply seem to be missing and forgotten. I can’t see a reason that this should have been so difficult to find, and yet here it is, the start of my fifth year focusing on Oscar films, and it’s the first I’ve been able to see it.
It’s a shame, too, because Bright Victory has its moments. It’s notable not because it’s about a disabled soldier, nor is it specifically notable because it has a through-line about racism. No, this is the only time in Arthur Kennedy’s illustrious but sadly overlooked film career where he was nominated for Best Actor. He chalked up another four nominations in supporting roles (no wins for any of them), but as a man relegated to support roles more often than not, he rarely got the chance to shine as the lead. In this case, he got that chance, and shine he damn well did.
We start in the height of World War II. Sergeant Larry Nevins (Arthur Kennedy) is fighting in the North African campaign and heads out to repair cable for communication with a few other men. Larry takes a round from a sniper, and since the round hits him in the temple, we’d assume that he’s lucky to be alive. That round destroys his optic nerves, though, so Larry is blind. It’s never really made clear how that single round destroyed both of his optic nerves, but so be it. Larry is sent stateside to learn to cope with his new infirmity.
This is where we’re going to get two narratives, one of which will be a major theme of this film and one that will only come into play in specific parts. The first theme is Larry’s love life. While he learns to deal with his blindness (an adjustment that includes an abortive attempt at suicide), Larry meets local girl Judy (Peggy Dow in one of her last movie roles). Judy is rather quickly smitten with Larry, and while it’s clear that he’s fond of her, he doesn’t fully return her romantic feelings. The reason for this is that Larry has a fiancée back in his small Florida town. His girl Chris (Julie Adams) is a daughter of privilege, but he’s not sure how her family will react to his blindness.
The second story here concerns Larry’s racism. While adjusting to his blindness, Larry meets Joe Morgan (James Edwards), a black soldier who was also blinded in combat. The two become fast friends until Larry makes a vulgar racial remark, something that alienates him from Joe and most of the rest of the patients. Eventually, Larry goes home on furlough before returning to the hospital to learn useful things like Braille. It’s here that he finds out what Chris’s rich parents think of him. It’s also here where he confronts his parents on the racism they taught him as a child.
The blindness story and dealing with his family and that of Chris is the story that works here. Arthur Kennedy was simply too good of an actor not to make a meal of this sort of a role. He does well in general as a blind man. He looks and acts the part and manages to be fairly convincing navigating obstacles but still struggling with basic tasks. Much of the latter half of the film comes down to Larry simply wanting to be treated with respect rather than pity, and even playing blind, Kennedy can wither anyone who stands in front of him with a gesture or with a particular tone of voice.
It’s the racism story that fails for me, because that more than anything feels like it was tacked onto the film. It’s as if Bright Victory only ran 87 minutes, so someone decided something like, “Well, racism is popular. Let’s do that!” It’s too bad, too, because that story opens well. There’s no indication at all that Larry is even remotely a racist when he drops an N-bomb around the middle of the film. It’s thus not so believable when 20 minutes later he’s lecturing his parents on their own casual racism.
Bright Victory’s biggest problem might be not it’s lack of focus but too much ambition. It wants to do more than simply present the story of a man wounded in war adjusting to life. After all, that’s what The Best Years of Our Lives did. No, there’s a real effort here to make Bright Victory something more, and because of that, the film overreaches. Still, I’ll take too much ambition over none any day of the week.
Why to watch Bright Victory: Arthur Kennedy is too good to be a forgotten actor.
Why not to watch: The racism story is a cobble.