During the Western Desert Campaign of World War II, two Allied officers in Egypt are interviewed to lead a dangerous commando mission far behind enemy lines in Benghazi. Major David Brand, a South African, is a regular army officer but lacks experience of combat and of commanding men in the field. He does not speak Arabic and has only a limited knowledge of the area in Libya in which the patrol is to operate. Captain Jimmy Leith, a Welshman, is the opposite; an amateur volunteer with extensive knowledge of the area who knows a local guide and speaks fluent Arabic as well. It is decided that both officers will go, with Major Brand in command. The men see Brand as a disciplinarian - "the only thing he's slept with is the rule book".
Major Brand's wife Jane is a WRAF Flight Officer who enlisted to be near her husband. When Brand invites Leith to drinks with his wife, he picks up the fact that the two had previously had an affair before she married Brand. Leith had walked out on her without explanation.
The unit parachutes behind enemy lines with the mission of attacking a German headquarters and bringing back secret plans from a safe to be opened by Wilkins, an experienced safecracker. Dressed as local civilians, Brand's hand shakes with fright when he has to knife a German sentry; the deed is done by Leith.
The mission is completed successfully with only one death and one man wounded of the British soldiers. The patrol ambushes a German detachment, capturing Oberst Lutze, who Brandt knows was responsible for the secret information. Possibly in the hope of getting rid of Leith, Brandt leaves him alone with two seriously wounded men, one British, one German. Leith decides to put them out of their pain. He shoots the German, who pleads for his life. The Briton encourages Leith to act quickly, and get it over with. Leith puts his pistol to the soldier’s head and fires, but there are no bullets left. Rather than reloading, Leith picks the man up, and sets out to carry him to safety. The ironic use of music here, a heroic march, is unusually powerful. The man cries out in agony and curses Leith’s failure, but dies before Leith puts him down again. Leith, whose Arab friend has joined him, then catches up with the rest of the unit.
The patrol is supposed to escape on camels, but they discover the men left with them have been murdered and the camels taken. During the long march back across the desert, Brand's animosity towards Leith grows, not only due to the affair with his wife, but to Brand's fear that Leith will reveal him as a coward to headquarters and destroy his career. While the group are resting, Brand sees a scorpion climb up the leg of Leith's trousers but does not warn him in time. When Leith is stung, Brand refrains from shooting him as his orders permit and lets him die in pain during a sandstorm. The men believe he killed him.
A patrol eventually picks up the group and takes them back to HQ. Brand's wife is distraught to learn of Leith's death, and when Brand is immediately awarded the Distinguished Service Order, instead of congratulating him, she walks off disconsolate. In the closing shot Brand ruefully pins the medal on a stuffed dummy.
Although labelled a Franco-American co-production, Bitter Victory was mainly a French production, made by Transcontinental Films, the production company set up by German-born producer Paul Graetz (not to be confused with the German actor with the same name). The US co-production consisted of Columbia Pictures putting up some financing in return for worldwide distribution rights. The French financing came from the publisher Robert Laffont. Production started on 17 February 1957 and finished two months later. Much of the film was shot on location in Libya, with support from the British War Office and the British Army, while some interior scenes were done at the Victorine Studios, Nice, France.
Christopher Lee recalls in his autobiography that upon arriving in Libya, all but the main stars essentially took part in a cast lottery for parts. Nobody was satisfied with the role they ended up with, particularly Raymond Pellegrin, who was stuck as an Arab guide who had only four lines. Lee says that the whole cast parted, "in the certain knowledge of having shared in a failure."
The film had its premiere at the 18th Venice Film Festival on 29 August 1957, where it competed for the Golden Lion award (which went to Satyajit Ray's Aparajito) as a French entry, but with English dialogue and Italian subtitles. The first general release was in France, on 20 November 1957.
According to Nick (personal communication) the film’s British distributors were largely responsible for cutting the film down from 101 minutes to 90. The whole final passage is removed, and this version, released on 25 January 1958, ends with the arrival of help and Lutze setting fire to the documents. On the other hand, the British Board of Film Censors (predecessor of the British Board of Film Classification ) required only minor cuts, which made Leith’s execution of the wounded German less explicit. Not until 2006 did British TV show the uncut version. The film was released in the US on 3 March 1958, cut down to 83 minutes.