HILL, THE(director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriters: from the play by Ray Rigby/R.S. Allen; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Thelma Connell; music: Art Noel/Don Pelosi; cast: Sean Connery (Trooper Joe Roberts), Harry Andrews (Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson), Ian Bannen (Sergeant Charlie Harris), Alfred Lynch (George Stevens), Ossie Davis (Jacko King), Roy Kinnear (Monty Bartlett), Jack Watson (Jock McGrath), Ian Hendry (Staff Sergeant Williams), Michael Redgrave (Medical Officer), Norman Bird (Commandant); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Kenneth Hyman; MGM; 1965)
“Uncompromising look at the inside of a British military prison in North Africa during WW II.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men”/”Bye Bye Braverman”/”Deathtrap”) directs a stark uncompromising look at the inside of a British military prison in North Africa during WW II. It was filmed in Almeria, Spain, in daily shoots of uncomfortable 115 degree temperatures. The conditions were so harsh that many in the crew came down with dysentery. The all-male film is about the brutal mistreatment of prisoners by the screws at a stockade for court-martialed British soldiers. It was based on Ray Rigby’s autobiographical TV play, which shared the author private’s own experiences of imprisonment during World War II.
The ‘hill’ is a sand mound built by prisoners to be used as a means of cruel and excessive punishment in the blistering heat. A sadistic racist Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews) runs the show, as the officer commandant (Norman Bird) is an incompetent fool who chooses to turn a blind eye to the operation of disciplining the prisoners by leaving everything up to his R.S. N. Wilson’s aim is to break the soldier-prisoners down and then build them up to return as soldiers, as he sees himself as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who is doing the right thing to make these men soldiers again. His fascist method of discipline is to have the soldier-prisoners to run with full kit in the heat up and down the dreaded hill even if they are exhausted. There’s also verbal abuse, which is designed to break a man’s spirit rather than as a treatment of rehabilitation. To insure that this punishment is carried out for a newly arrived prisoner sergeant major Wilson has Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), a particularly sadistic new guard chosen, who relishes the task of force marching the men up and down the hill and watching them suffer.
Among the newest prisoners are the following five men: a disgraced tankman warrant officer, Sergeant Major Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), who punched out his commanding officer rather than obey an insane order to lead his men on a suicide mission; a black soldier from the West Indies, Jacko King (Ossie Davis), who drank whiskey from the officers’ mess; a slimy career criminal Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), a black marketeer who sold some stolen army goods to civilians; the soft desk soldier George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), who went AWOL to see his wife; and tough guy Jock McGrath (Jack Watson), who was arrested for being drunk on duty and fighting.
When Williams goes too far and causes the death of Stevens due to heat stroke, Roberts leads a rebellion that has tragic consequences for everyone concerned. The five diverse prisoners have different levels of courage to fight back, while the weak-kneed medical officer (Michael Redgrave) and the fair-minded staff sergeant (Ian Bannen) come to sympathize with the prisoners.
The film’s highlights include the odd way Ossie Davis’s character reacts against the racism he’s subjected to, how the R.S.M. stares down the prisoners attempting to riot after Stevens’ death and the embittered Connery’s just character displaying toughness and verbal insolence in his relentless stance as the voice of reason to expose the corrupt prison system and the outdated soldiering methods of the British army.
It was submitted as the official British selection at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film justifiably earned Connery the highest praise for his acting to date. Unfortunately the critically acclaimed film bombed at the box office, as audiences didn’t want to see their James Bond in such a grim, thoughtful and powerful black and white prison melodrama.
The American viewer might have trouble understanding some of the garbled British dialogue (blamed on the poor sound quality) and the more faint-hearted viewers might not be able to take in all the torture scenes without turning away.
REVIEWED ON 5/28/2009 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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