In Mark Robson's Bright Victory (1951), Sergeant Larry Nevins (Arthur Kennedy) is blinded by a Nazi sniper and returns home to adjust to an entirely new way of living. Kennedy is great in the role, believably bitter in the first act, but growing in confidence as he learns how to navigate without sight.
Of course there's a family waiting at home, and his girl, Chris Paterson (Julie Adams). But romantic complications arise during Larry's rehabilitation, when he strikes up a friendship with the beautiful and compassionate Judy Greene (Peggy Dow). He also forms a close relationship with another blinded solider, Joe Morgan (James Edwards), who happens to be black. These intersecting relationships - along with, in the second and third acts, his parents, Judy's family, and Chris' family - inform Larry's journey through blindness, his shifting ambitions, and his growth as a human being.
I was ready for Nevins to have to choose between Peggy and Chris, and that particular love triangle plays out as you might expect--but it's not pat, and for part of the film I thought my expectations might have been subverted. More interesting is the relationship between Nevins and Joe Morgan during rehabilitation; both men were raised Southern, and, well, Nevins was raised with some racist ideology, and he unthinkingly uses the n-word while palling around with Joe--not knowing, of course, Joe's race. This predictably ruins the friendship, and I was, frankly, shocked not only by the use of the slur, but the frank and honest reaction to it and even Larry's insistence that he didn't do anything wrong. It takes the rest of the film for Larry's guilt and embarrassment, and the fact that he misses Joe, to percolate, and when he's finally reunited with his parents, the film is just as frank in showing how he became racist--via his parents, of course, revealed through some offhand comments from his mother, which somewhat sours the family reunion.
And yet, this touchy subject matter is handled well, with Larry getting know know his parents better, his parents - or at least, his father - recognizing that the world is changing or at least needs to change. And it's not just about the racism; his parents try to hide it, but they're not exactly delighted that their son has come home blind. There's a lot of talk in the film's first act about how love will overcome everything, but Robson's direction, the screenplay, and the performances demonstrate that none of this is easy for anyone involved.
In the end, Larry and Joe make amends and Larry and Peggy get together, with Larry going off to law school to begin the next chapter of his life. Yes, it's a happy ending, but it feels earned.
Oh, Rock Hudson appears in the opening minutes of the film as a sadly doomed soldier, felled during the same attack that blinded Larry Nevins. Even with just a few lines, Hudson's charisma and presence shine through. He's very natural even in this bit part.
And as a fan of Gilligan's Island, it was lovely to see Jim Backus in a solid supporting role as Peggy's brother-in-law and supportive friend to Larry. It's always a thrill seeing one of the Castaways in their earlier roles, before the island typecast them forever. Hmmm--typecastaways?
One final thought--how lucky was Arthur Kennedy to have Julie Adams and Peggy Dow play his love interests? Both women are stunningly beautiful, inside and out. Must have been something.