Friday, July 3, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Hill"

In 1965, audiences didn't want to see Sean Connery in a gritty war prison drama. They hadn't wanted to see him as a scheming nephew in "Woman of Straw" or in an Alfred Hitchcock psycho-thriller, "Marnie," either. Basically, if he wasn't playing James Bond, people in the mid-'60s didn't want to see Sean Connery in anything.

It's a pity, since "The Hill" is one of Connery's finest performances in one of his best films.

Connery plays Joe Roberts, a sergeant-major sent up for striking an officer. He's a regular Army man, a by-the-book type now forced to face the structured insanity of a British war prison during World War II. The place is like some medieval castle of horrors, a dusty facility under a blazing sun, with a large hill in the center composed of loose dirt held together by rocks. This hill is the prisoners' crucible, forced to trudge up and down it by the prison's harsh guards.

The chief guard is Wilson, played by Harry Andrews. By coincidence, Andrews also had a major role in the other classic film reviewed this week, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," in which he played Lord Lucan. Andrews is a marvelous physical specimen, with a wide face and square jaw. Together with an imposing physique, Andrews seems to project the very essence of the old British empire -- lordly manners with a brutal iron fist behind.

Wilson is a hard man, but not cruel. He demands utter subservience of all those around him, bragging to the new guard Williams (Ian Hendry) that the commandant is merely a figurehead who follows Wilson's every suggestion. As Roberts and a group of four other prisoners are being brought in, Wilson takes great pride in mustering out two prisoners who have been deemed worthy of returning to duty. Wilson's creed is to break men down so that he can build them up again as soldiers.

But Williams, the young despot-in-training, relishes the destruction too much to bother with the construction. He takes great delight in singling Roberts out, making him climb the hill while his fellows are allowed to go swimming in a nearby pond. Soon, though, Williams focuses his malevolent attention on Stevens, a weakling who eventually succumbs to heat exhaustion. His death sets off a near-riot in the prison, with Roberts determined to see Williams held to account, and Wilson determined to back one of his guards -- even though he knows Williams is culpable for Stevens' death.

Ossie Davis gives a great performance as Jacko King, a soldier from the West Indies who must contend with the overt racism of the British officers, who openly refer to him as a monkey and the n-word. Jacko is the only prisoner who is willing to stand with Roberts and testify against Williams, which makes him a target. After an especially heinous confrontation with Wilson, Jacko goes off his rocker, tearing off all his clothes and acting like a primitive in front of the commandant.

Ossie Davis was one of those actors who was around for so long, he always seemed younger than he actually was. In "The Hill" I took him to be in his late 20s, but in actuality he was nearly 50.

Ian Bannen, the great Scottish character actor, has a central role as Harris, a senior guard who uses his friendship with Wilson to try to make him see that Williams is a disaster waiting to happen. In one neat bit, Harris tries to whisper some friendly advice in the ear of a prisoner in between screaming orders at him, in order to keep up appearances.

"The Hill" was directed by Sidney Lumet, one of the great American directors of the late 20th century -- and the 21st. Lumet, now in his 80s, is still making films, and damn fine ones like "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which made my Top 10 List for 2007.

Lumet uses some amazing camera work that was very cutting-edge for 1965, such as moving cranes and hand-held cameras. He uses very long takes as his camera circles around his actors, or catches them at extreme angles. The effect never draws attention to itself, though, but lends a sense of immediacy, like the audience is really on that hill with Connery, trudging through the sucking earth under a boiling sun.

If I have one complaint about the movie, it's the dialogue. Most of the actors use fast-paced cockney accents that would be hard to understand even under the best of circumstances. But the filmmakers seem to have eschewed looping -- the process of re-recording dialogue in a sound studio -- in favor of using the live stuff captured on set. As a result, there are times when I could barely hear or comprehend what was being said.

Too bad audiences gave up on "The Hill" before giving it a chance. Sean Connery proves that James Bond was just his warm-up act.

3.5 stars

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