The Hill

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June 10, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

Probably the most unconventional of all the World War II prisoner-of-war dramas, Sidney Lumet’s The Hill relies upon language and asks a lot of its actors, but consistently great performances (including Sean Connery’s first non-Bond role as Roberts) and some lovely, gritty black and white cinematography successfully reel the narrative in when it brushes with melodrama and seems as if it may go off the deep end. The prisoners of this film are on the same side as the prison administration; they are British soldiers deemed unsuitable for combat and sent behind the lines to be corrected. The treatment they receive by their own countrymen, by the officer-guards who are themselves in need of corrective drilling and the corrupt administrators who have quotas to fill is hypocritical, cruel and holds a mirror up to the whole war machine and its absurdities. In World War II, fighting was a perfunctory vocation. In The Hill, it’s all a business, a bureaucratic hill in the middle of the desert.

Regimental Sergeant Major Wilson (Harry Andrews) is showing a new Staff Sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry), around the camp grounds, telling him what he expects of him as an officer and what the RSM is capable of, in short his accomplishments as warden. The RSM gazes at his hill, specially constructed for him in the middle of camp, like a pharaoh at his pyramid; it is a monument to his prowess as a disciplinarian and he makes damn sure his new Staff Sergeant respects it—and like the film’s characters, Oswald Morris’ camera spends a great deal of time gazing at the thing.

Two scrubs march up to tell the RSM they have been approved to return to the front; the RSM salutes them and has them march double-time with kit out of the camp. When the two reach the solitude of the desert they plop down on their asses and give each other a gleeful look and a big sigh of relief. Apparently front-line combat is a welcome occupation after weeks under the thumb of the RSM and his screws. Five new scrubs enter the grounds, again interrupting the tour, and are summarily summarized by the RSM. These fresh five will be put under Williams’ jurisdiction and will be made to suffer for it.

Lumet spends the first forty minutes of screen time on continuous action, introducing all the pertinent characters and motifs, introducing the viewer to the pitiless hill and the sisyphean tasks that have to be undertaken upon it. The viewer will be made to climb the hill with the new prisoners until every bodily fiber rejects another movement. This is boring and grueling and exhaustive viewing, but weirdly fascinating. Over the course of the initial drills we are slowly made to recognize the prejudices of Williams, who obviously doesn’t like Jacko King (Ossie Davis), the Jamaican, is repulsed by Stevens (Alfred Lynch) the wimp and Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) the sloth and intimidated by the physical stamina of McGrath (Jack Watson) and Roberts. In addition, he feels an inferiority to the RSM whose faculties have been rough-hewn by long experience. Williams has a drinking contest with the RSM which he loses and then wins all in the same night. On a different night Williams will attempt the hill himself, finding he can only make two complete reps on it before collapse.

The demise of Stevens is the most sincerely rendered of the various tragedies; all he wants is to see his wife, he isn’t cut out for this business—everyone knows it, and so does he. But nonetheless he’s a man, and a soldier, and none of his officers doubt that he can be reformed, or formed rather, into a disciplined fighting man. The way this film depicts his physical and mental discombobulation, his fear and trembling, his exposed nerves, is both tragic and very real. Stevens is a stand-in for every young man who wasted his fluids in that war or any, and it seems as if Lumet has opened old wounds with his character. It starts with Williams, who smells blood right away. Williams is the first of a few sadists who like nothing more than a lad they can bring under heel. Soon enough Williams has Stevens trudge up the hill wearing a field gas-mask just for his amusement. Lumet takes us with him over the hill, first-person, gas-mask over the lens, heavy breathing on the soundtrack, and we experience all the disorientation that Stevens must.

Roberts feels partially responsible for Stevens because he gets him in trouble during inspection, having him rub whitewash on his kit to cover up its blemishes instead of just scrubbing it clean. Roberts also has a bit of fun with him when he begins ‘sleep-drilling’. But his death is a clarion call for the other men, especially Roberts whose basic decency and empathy extends even to his antagonists. When the entire camp is ordered to stand at attention for hours on end, enduring the sun’s rays, waiting to be inspected, he remarks to another scrub: “We’re all doing time. Even the screws.” It’s Roberts who challenges Williams, appeals to the humanist Harris (Ian Bannen), a screw equally perturbed by the wantonness of his peers, and petitions to the diffident and ridiculous camp Commandant (Norman Bird) to render a verdict on Stevens’ death that doesn’t contain the word ‘accidental’.

The narrative goes in a strange direction with Jacko, who, out of some pressing metaphysical need, throws his hands up in resignation. He suddenly deigns to wear the British uniform or follow orders. He now considers himself a civilian. The officers are caught so unawares by his behavior their sense of authority is punctured; they can’t make him go to his cell, or march, or do very much of anything, and he has the support of Harris, who allows him to see the Commandant nearly in the buff. Luckily for the viewer, Ossie Davis transitions this character with great aplomb, so you may not even care, but there is a strong dose of unreality here in a world so dispassionate and bureaucratically organized. The military veil can only be sundered by a man like Jacko.

Probably the film’s strongest moments after the long, initial action take place during a semi-revolt in which the prisoners are chanting ‘Stevens’ and making a clamor in their cells. RSM Wilson deftly diverts a full-blown insurrection, and it’s thrilling to watch as Morris films it from wide-angles somewhat above the action. Wilson self-assuredly lets the men out of their cells and allows them to blow off steam, and when the fledgling mob ceases he begins picking them off one by one with a mixture of seriousness and complaisance, with a tenor of ambivalence. Harris is there to confront him; he disarms Wilson with humor, simultaneously cooling the prisoners’ ardor, but cementing their position against the officers. As a result, a handful are cherry-picked for drilling, but Roberts and Jacko get a shot at petitioning the Commandant.

The film’s staying power lies in the strength of its screenplay, the cinematographic choices and the performances of its actors, but a current of repulsion, a total disregard for viewing expectations will make it a difficult film for many to endure. The film successfully abstracts its ideas into drama, but its ideological foundations are ones of tedium, absurdity and alienation, difficult themes to broach let alone drive hyperbolically to sometimes illogical conclusions. Indeed, this is a film that doesn’t entertain so much as it takes you over the top and dares you—to confront, categorize and define it.

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