Monday, November 9, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Hell Is For Heroes" (1962)

By all accounts the production on "Hell Is For Heroes" was a total nightmare. And yet, the final result is a gritty, compelling war picture notable for its unblinking look at the horrors of combat. It's one of the earliest movies I can think of where a character dies not with noble silence, but screaming and convulsing while trying to keep his intestines inside his body.

Steve McQueen, an ensemble player who already felt like he should be paid and treated like the big star he was yet to become, was a surly jerk to cast and crew. Screenwriter Robert Pirosh was tasked with recreating the gritty feel of his masterpiece "Battleground," basing much of the plot and characters on his own World War II experiences. He was to have directed it, too, but walked off the project after dealing with McQueen's attitude.

The story, which reportedly was supposed to focus more on Bobby Darin's wisenheimer character, Corby, was rewritten after McQueen was cast, making his moody Private Reese the spotlight. Trusty action movie director Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry") was brought in as a replacement, a move that likely saved the picture.

It was so low-budget that other stars James Coburn and Fess Parker were essentially parachuted into the production a few days at a time while filming other movies. Bob Newhart wanted to go do stand-up comedy instead, and kept lobbying to have his nebbish character killed off. The props and costumes were cheap and unreliable, and eventually the studio just called a halt to production and told the filmmakers to edit together what footage they had.

For all this, "Hell Is For Heroes" is a worthy inheritor of other realistic war films like "Battleground" and a precursor to bloodier depictions of violence that would come with "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch."

And whatever McQueen's disposition toward the cast and crew, he's at his anti-hero cool best. He had the uncanny ability to fashion characters who seemed both remote and identifiable to audiences. His indifference was his hook.

Story-wise, there's not much to it. An American company of dogfaces expects to be sent home, but instead they're sent back on the line to plug up a hole on the front. A puppyish Polish refugee named Homer (Nick Adams) tags along everywhere, hoping to eventually join the soldiers on the trip home. At the last minute Reese (McQueen) joins the second squad as a reinforcement, and immediately sets about alienating everyone.

Reese, wearing a beard and a scowl, is too old and battle-hardened to be a private, but that's because he was just court-martialed down from master sergeant for going crazy on leave, crashing a colonel's jeep. He's a classic film archetype, seen more in Westerns and Japanese samurai flicks: the warrior who lives to fight, and isn't much good for anything anytime else.

The officers are attempting to outfox the Germans, moving in an entire company and then moving them out again quietly, hoping the enemy doesn't notice. That leaves the depleted second squad -- just six men -- to hold the line. The idea is the reinforcements will arrive before the Germans have noticed how thin they are, but of course things don't work out that way.

The rest of the squad is a typical war picture troupe. Coburn is Henshaw, the owlish corporal who likes to fix things. Harry Guardino is the commanding sergeant, Pike, who's smart enough to listen to Reese's advice on battle tactics. Corby (Darin) is the scrounger, always wheeling and dealing. There's Kolinsky (Mike Kellin), the only one who speaks Polish, and the quiet, naive Cumberly (Bill Mullikin)

Parker plays another sergeant who knew Reese back when. Newhart joins them halfway through as Driscoll, a weak-kneed private from the typing pool who got lost with his jeep full of typewriters, and gets conscripted (him, not the typewriters).

The squad comes up with some clever ideas of how to generate enough noise and activity to make the Germans think there's still a whole Army company defending the area. Henshaw rigs the jeep to groan and backfire like a tank. They string wire to ammunition cans filled with rocks or coins and hang them out in no-man's land, so they can pull on them and draw enemy fire.

It seems the Germans even rigged up a microphone in the bunker when they previously held the area so as to spy on the Americans. Driscoll is assigned to stay in the pillbox and simulate the radio chatter of a busy unit, drawing on Newhart's standup routines faking one end of a telephone conversation.

Nevertheless, the Germans do send a patrol to probe. Reese, using grenades and his M3 automatic "grease gun," manages to kill most of them, but some escape to report back. Reese decides the only way to make the Germans hesitate on a full-scale assault is to sneak across the battlefield and blow up their main bunker with a 40-pound charge.

This leads to a very tense scene of Reese, Henshaw and Kolinsky crawling through a minefield on their bellies, feeling for the triggering prongs with their fingers. It's certainly the film's visceral highlight.

"Hell Is For Heroes" is one of those forgotten war pictures that deserves a better place in the cinematic pantheon. Sometimes even when a shoot goes to hell, the result can still pack a wallop.

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