Sidney Lumet‘s brutal, gripping 1965 movie “The Hill” opens with a solitary figure laboring up the man-made torture device that gives the film its title. In one of Oswald Morris’ many mesmerizing crane shots, the man collapses in the North African heat and then the camera begins to move slowly away, off into the distance, abandoning the man and the compound in which he is forced to live. As in the rest of the film, no music is heard, which lets the hopelessness and isolation of the people we are watching sink in.
The story begins with five British soldiers arriving at a military prison. Four of them are privates who have committed various crimes (including Ossie Davis as a West Indian soldier and Roy Kinnear as a fat spiv), but the fifth is something different. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) was a heroic sergeant major who has been busted down for beating up his commanding officer. Connery, given his first chance as a star to do something different from James Bond, plays the part well, showing how Roberts can be callous in some respects yet gentle in others. He is in emotional agony, for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.
The most complex performance is given by Harry Andrews, as RSM Wilson, who runs the daily operations of the prison. It would have been easy to write and play the character of RSM Wilson as a heartless martinet. But Ray Rigby’s script and Andrews’ acting are much more sophisticated than that. Yes, the RSM can be tough, but he also shows compassion because he is committed to rebuilding the prisoners rather than simply destroying them. He’s a three dimensional person, unlike the newly arrived Sergeant Major Williams (Ian Hendry), who is uncomplicatedly nasty. Ian Hendry, who was by all accounts a piece of work in real life (sadly, he drank himself to death in his early 50s) is convincingly vicious as Williams. As Connery’s character says “Wilson wants to build toy soldiers and Williams wants to break them”.
The prisoners struggle against the harsh prison regime, and also among themselves. But as Williams gets more brutal, causing a tragic incident, they begin to unify in opposition to the screws. They are aided by a diffident medical officer (a solid as ever Michael Redgrave) and a staff sergeant whose motives are interesting to speculate about (Ian Bannen, if you want to engage in a dialogue about what drives his character, let’s do that in the comments section so as not to spoil the film).
Two complaints. The film would have benefited from some tightening in length and from dropping the final stages of evolution of Ossie Davis’ character. His behavior at the end seems a theatrical flourish to please a 1965 audience and not, like the rest of the film, a realistic take on WWII prison life. His performance though, like that of everyone else in the all-male cast, remains top-notch.
It would be an injustice to close on such cavils, however. Sidney Lumet’s “movie as play” style works perfectly in the claustrophobic setting of a prison. Cinematographer Oswald Morris and editor Thelma Connell do brilliant work throughout, particular during the scenes in which the prisoners are forced to climb the hill (In one case, while wearing a gas mask — horrifying). Given its subject matter and tone, this isn’t a date movie…but it’s a great movie.
A closing note on Connery’s evolution: As the critically-acclaimed “The Hill” bombed at the box office he saw audiences line up world wide to munch popcorn and watch Thunderball, which began to disgust him with the James Bond franchise and the state of his career. But while he didn’t know it at the time, he had already made the wisest move possible, which was to link up with a great director who saw more to him as an actor than the Bond films revealed. Someday I will write about the other excellent films that resulted from the Lumet-Connery collaboration, and how they helped Connery escape Bondage.