Re-appreciation Society: The Hill

 

In a world where Jack and Stan’s On The Buses antics are all available on R2 DVD, it is a crime that one of the great underrated films of not only Sir Sean Connery’s career but that of its director, Sidney Lumet, should still be unavailable on these shores. In this film, British army prisoners in WWII North Africa are, for a range of King’s Regs. infractions, subjected to the pitiless trials of Sisyphus on “The Hill“.

Shot in 1965 in the midst of his James Bondage, Connery knew a breakout role when he saw one. He ostensibly plays the lead, or, at least cataylst for the struggle that will erupt here, as blind devotion to the breaking and building up of men for the front threatens to tip into sadism and abuse of the unbending system. He plays Trooper Joe Roberts, a Sgt. Major broken down the ranks for refusing a suicidal order to take his men forward into near certain death. This sets him apart as a special case when he arrives with four others to the glasshouse. RSM Wilson (Harry Andrews, brilliant), entrusts newly arrived Staff Sgt. Williams (a nasty, sly performance from Ian Hendry) to discipline and drill them. Between them, appealing vainly to Wilson’s better nature is humanitarian time server, Staff Sgt. Harris (Ian Bannen).

Shot in stark black and white, the viewer can almost feel the sweat pour off the prisoners in the harsh, blinding sun. The film opens with a bravura high crane shot that sets the tone straight off, and rivals the brilliant opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil. We are voyeurs here, as at the summit of the hill, a man-made structure of sand flanked by white- washed rocks, some poor sod comes tumbling down backwards after being sweated up it. The camera then pulls back and proceeds to prowl around the camp parade ground, a bedlam of prisoners being drilled, harsh commands merging incoherently with the endless stamp of feet on sand and rock. As Roberts and co. arrive, two freed men are doubled out the gates, before collapsing on their backs outside and throwing their heads back in laughter – clearly the front line is a welcome  relief after this.

Even when in the open and not in the cell block, the film feels claustrophobic and nerve shreddingly tense; many shots are close-ups, the camera angled up at guards looming forward, barking at the prisoners from beneath their slash peaks, harsh light creating unbending shadows. It takes a while to notice there is no music score, as if we’ve been parachuted into a waking nightmare. Lumet had been stationed in Oran for a while during the war, next to a G.I prison, and drew on his experience there of unusual punishment – the camp commander had a Moroccan band play all day on top of a hill in the middle of the camp. “I’m not sure how the guys in the band stood it, never mind the guys in the camp,” he told the BBC’s Omnibus.Wilson is the de facto King of the hill, brow beating the medical officer and the largely absent camp commandant. “Nobody’s gonna put a medal on us. But get this straight – one job’s as important as the next.”

The entire camp melts for 30 minutes at morning parade, the flag limp in the still air, waiting for the Commandant to return from an assignation in town with his favoured prostitute. “We’re all doing time, even the screws, “murmurs Roberts. Wilson is unduly proud of his little kingdom, and the hill, his personally created and favoured method of discipline, stating how hot it is up there. “I fancied I saw snow on top of it as I came in,” Roberts replies, doing himself no favours despite his initial intention to create no waves.

The only thing that grows on that hill is soldiers,” sneers Williams. He’s a sadist and a coward, a bad combination, a terrifying little shit given free reign to unwittingly set the walls come tumbling down. Unable at first to break Roberts, he sets his sights on the weakest of the new intake, Stevens (Alfred Lynch). He shouldn’t even be there, he just wants to be back home with his wife. When he’s caught out cleaning his kit with whitewash (at Roberts’ suggestion) Williams sends him over the hill in a gas-mask. Lumet takes us with him, the mask over the camera lens, disorienting laboured breathing on the soundtrack. He dies of sun stroke, as diagnosed by the weak M.O (Sir Michael Redgrave), putting Roberts and Williams at each others throats.

Lumet cast his antagonists brilliantly, and the prisoners, who could have been bland stereotypes, are mostly played by stalwart British character actors. Roy Kinnear is super as the venal, slothful spiv Bartlett; Ossie Davis, the sole American, is the Colonial soldier who backs Roberts; and Alfred Lynch as Stevens makes you feel for the poor sod – Roberts feels guilty for laughing at him marching deliriously up and down their cell beneath the “Gestapo light”, sand happy, before collapsing. Jack Watson as McGrath is a tough equal to Roberts, but without his backbone. Connery (and Lumet) know when he should stand out, and when to let the others breath. The film overall is a great collaborative exercise, from the powerful acting, to the superb bleached out cinematography by Oswald Morris (who worked later with Connery on the excellent The Man Who Would Be King), and editing from Thelma Connell (very underrated, like a lot of female editors).

Lumet chose specific lenses so that everything in the foreground becomes more distorted, and everything in the background seems to recede further “and become less important. Even though the focus is clear, it’s much further away,” Lumet recalled. For the first third, a 24mm lens was used. For the middle third, 21mm, and for the final, 12mm –“and that was everything – close-ups, the works. To give a sense of greater and greater human distortion and background receding and receding, losing its significance in relation to what was going on up front.” 

A superb set piece where Harry Andrews’ Wilson talks down a near insurrection in the cell block is a master-class in long takes, editing and performance, filmed from wide angles, mostly above the hair-trigger crowd. Andrews is magnificent here, turning the prisoners complaints and William’s rejoinders into a cabaret act, defusing and twisting the situation. He cherry-picks a prisoner to examine Steven’s body for “any marks, bullet holes or abrasions”, knowing he’ll find none.

Appearing for the first time moustachioed and non-bewigged, Connery subtly weighs up the conflicts of his character – a believer in rules even though he broke them, a proud man who allows himself to be humbled, he walks a difficult line. He believed it was one of his better roles and films, and it led to many fruitful collaborations with the sympathetic Lumet – The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, Murder On The Orient Express, and Family Business.  However, The Hill‘s downbeat ending and difficult, challenging subject matter and expression were commercial anathema.  It must have been galling after the film was nominated for six BAFTA’s and he was courted at Cannes, to see Thunderball easily outstrip it at the box office. For Connery, a few more years of “doing time” as Bond would test his mettle.

 

Originally posted 2012-08-25 14:23:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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