The Hill Review
The Hill is a film that comes across with such visceral force that it seems to have been made in a white-heat of righteous fury, exacerbated by the sweltering Almeria locations. It’s so powerful an indictment of British military brutality that when it looked as if it might win the Palme D’or at Cannes, Rex Harrison – who was on the jury – famously sent a telegram to Buckingham Palace, warning the establishment of the potential embarrassment. It’s a violent, sad film which draws the audience in so close that it’s hard not to feel beads of sweat forming on your forehead as you watch.
In Nazi work camps, prisoners were routinely assigned to simple and pointless tasks. A favourite was carrying a very heavy object from one place to another, putting it down, picking up an equally heavy object and taking it back, and so on until the prisoner died of starvation or exhaustion. The punishment faced by the military prisoners in The Hill is perhaps not quite as systematically murderous but it’s equally pointless and sadistic. Any prisoner who incurs the wrath of RSM Wilson (Andrews) or one of his subordinates is forced to march up and down a huge hill of sand, carefully positioned to catch the worst that the unforgiving sun can offer. Wilson prides himself on running the best disciplined military prison in the British army, using a system based on vicious punishment followed by repressive paternalism. But the order in his camp is about the break down due to the clash of three implacable forces – Williams (Hendry), a new Staff Sergeant with a taste for random cruelty and a hatred of homosexuals that only the most closeted man could sustain; Jacko King (Davis), a huge black soldier all too aware of the endemic racism of the British army and keen to establish that he is no-one’s Uncle Tom; and Sergeant Roberts (Connery), a highly decorated soldier who has been imprisoned for disobeying orders. When Williams begins to systematically break down Stevens (Lynch), a shy recruit who went AWOL to see his wife, Roberts realises that his own humanity demands that something is done.
By 1965, Sidney Lumet had already established a reputation as a highly efficient director, capable of turning round projects in half the time of some of his contemporaries. That this wasn’t always a good thing can be seen by the peculiarly half-finished nature of some of his early films. For every eighteen carat jewel such as The Pawnbroker, there’s a dud like That Kind of Woman or something like A View From The Bridge in which every scene looks as if it needed another couple of takes to be right. Yet, Lumet has a particular speciality which always brings out the best in him; the subject of law, justice and the authority exercised by the state. Virtually all of his best work is on this topic, one which he first examined in his cinematic debut, Twelve Angry Men.
So it’s no surprise to find that The Hill is an intense study of the ways in which authority is wielded. Lumet has always been cynical about power, considering it a corrupting influence on almost everyone whom it seduces. Those who try to stay aloof from its dangerous glamour tend to end up failing miserably despite their best intentions. The four main authority figures in the film are each archetypes; RSM Wilson is a hypocrite, claiming to want the best for his prisoners while systematically stripping them of their self-respect and encouraging the brutality of his deputies; Williams oozes self-hatred from every pore, turning his own demons onto the poor bastards in his charge; Staff Sergeant Harris (Bannen) is a good man in a hopelessly bad situation, doomed to failure in what, in the circumstances, has to be described as brave but misguided liberalism; and the Commandant is an absentee landlord, resentful when forced out of bed with one of his whores in order to regulate on some matter of protocol.
What makes The Hill an upsetting and harrowing film is the hopelessness of it. The prison is a small inferno of hatred and cruelty which devours everyone who enters it, including the jailers. The sheer tedious worthlessness of marching up and down the hill can be easily seen as a metaphor for what the jail does – i.e. nothing positive. Many of the men are there for trivial crimes – but the army demands that they must be made examples of because it relies as much on fear as loyalty to maintain discipline. Lumet and the brilliant screenwriter Ray Rigby force us to associate with the three convicts, Roberts, Stevens and Jacko, and then makes us watch them fall to pieces in one way or another. There’s an inevitability to the first tragedy – the horrible fate of Stevens – and the remorseless logic continues to the end when a potential victory is systematically turned into despair.
If Roberts and Jacko are the nearest things the film offers to conventional heroes, they certainly don’t behave in conventionally heroic ways. It’s as much our natural identification with those wonderfully charismatic performers Sean Connery and Ossie Davis that draws us to them as anything else. They also have a sense of the absurd and understand the appalling comedy of their situation – the sheer pointless madness of it. This humour gives them strength and makes them likeable, especially compared to the smug little sallies of RSM Wilson and the grubby-minded filth of Monty Bartlett (Kinnear), their cell mate. Ray Rigby writes fantastic dialogue and the actors relish it.
This wasn’t Sean Connery’s first non-Bond role after he first played the suave secret agent – that was the rather disastrous black comedy Woman of Straw - and he had worked with Hitchcock on Marnie. But this is a real step forward for him as an actor. Totally in character, unafraid to be unsympathetic and difficult and fearsomely tough, Connery does some of his best-ever work. He’s also typically ready with a wry quip – when asked by the MO if he has any incapacities, he raises an eyebrow and says, “Well, I wouldn't brag about it if I had, sir!” He has a great screen partner in Ossie Davis, one of the great actors of the century, and he spars brilliantly with Harry Andrews. Andrews, always good in uniform, is terrifying as Wilson because of his total rationality. He does, however, get a run for his money in the villain stakes from Ian Hendry, in the star-making role of Williams. A total loose cannon, Williams can’t even begin to cope with his job properly and his sheer delight in cruelty is made plain by Hendry’s style which alternates buttoned-up authority with spurts of manic glee.
The Hill is a stunningly controlled piece of filmmaking. It’s always in danger of going off the rails but it stays on course right up until the ending, when it necessarily erupts. Throughout, the blazing heat is vividly evoked by Oswald Morris’s razor-sharp monochrome cinematography and the decidedly wordy script benefits from the trim editing of Thelma Connell which never lingers too long on shots and keeps the pace fast and suspenseful. It aims to incite anger in the viewer and, in this, it is hugely successful.
It’s fair to say that The Hill has been a long-awaited release and it’s good to report that Warners have treated it well. It benefits from one of the best transfers in the World War Two Vol 2 box. The anamorphic 1.66:1 picture is stunningly sharp with loads of detail throughout. There is no serious print damage on display and the range of greys is impressive. The mono soundtrack has renders the dialogue clearly but does seem to be recorded a little quietly.
I would have loved to hear a commentary track from the eloquent and witty Lumet. At the very least, a retrospective documentary would have been welcome. As it is, we get a brief vintage documentary called “The Sun… The Sand… The Hill”, containing some period footage of Cannes, location shooting and a few morsels from the actors. At seven minutes, this leaves you wanting a lot more. Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer along with trailers for Operation Crossbow and Battle of the Bulge.
Optional English subtitles are present for the film but not for the extras. There is no scene selection menu on the disc, something I found irksome.