Judge Brendan Babish had to take a cold shower after watching The Hill, and it wasn't because Sean Connery took his shirt off.
They went up like men! They came down like animals!
Shot in the midst of his spectacular run as James Bond, in 1965 Sean Connery took a break from martinis and hot rods to star in Sidney Lumet's The Hill, a drama set in a World War II British disciplinary camp. Though popular throughout most of his lengthy career, Connery is rarely considered a master thespian, and The Hill is often cited as his best dramatic work. I have always insisted that distinction went to Zardoz, but still tried to approach The Hill with an open mind.
Facts of the Case
In the midst of World War II, five British prisoners arrive at a disciplinary camp located in the scorching Libyan desert. In the middle of this camp is a large, man-made hill, on which prisoners are ordered to march up and down to the point of collapse by the sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry, Damien: Omen II). All five men have been sent to the camp for varying infractions, and all five respond differently to Williams' brutal authority. Joe Roberts (Connery) is the most ornery of the lot, openly mocking and challenging orders. However, not all of the soldiers exhibit such strong resolve. In particular, George Stevens (Alfred Lynch, The Krays) quickly succumbs under the strain of forced marches up and down the hill. Though Stevens becomes physically ill and delusional, Williams continues pushing him, and begins worrying his superiors, and inflaming the ire of fellow soldiers, Roberts in particular.
The Hill was adapted from a play. This is important to note, because the film retains the distinct feel of a theater piece. Many scenes go on for 15 or 20 minutes, which might not seen so long in concept, but watching a 20-minute scene makes you realize how dramatically the pace of modern films has been sped up in the past 40 years. Director Sidney Lumet—who is now entering his mid-80s and still has two feature films in production—does what he can to reduce the staginess, mainly by employing several aerial shots and about a hundred extras. But make no mistake; this movie is almost like a filmed play on a very ornate set. That said, it's still a hell of a play.
It's also relevant, considering the militarized times we're currently living in. The Hill is pretty much divided into two halves: the first depicts the myriad ways in which authority figures in the military abuse their command and demean and debase those in their charge. All of the soldiers in The Hill have been sent to the disciplinary camp for relatively minor offenses—carrying pornographic pictures, drinking while on duty, etc.—yet, since there is little oversight, the chance of abuse is extremely high. However, I should note, Williams' tactics are nowhere near as horrific as those employed in Abu Ghraib, and this is to the film's credit. Though The Hill certainly challenges unchecked authority, it is not a polemic against corporal punishment; the film allows room for interpretation that—though Williams might enjoy inflicting pain with a little too much élan—strict punitive measures may be necessary when dealing with disobedient soldiers, especially in wartime.
The second half of the film begins once other officers become aware of Williams' actions. The issue here is the transparency of the army, and the effectiveness of their abilities to self-police. Again, this clearly relates to contemporary issues; in the current War on Terror there seems to be countless accusations of scandal in the military, but few are rigorously investigated. In the second half of the movie, Connery's character, Joe Roberts, becomes the focus. Unlike the rest of his fellow prisoners, Roberts is a loyal soldier who has at least a theoretical respect for the rules and regulations of the military. This is why he is especially enraged by Williams' intransigence and the lack of resolve on the part of his superiors to punish him.
Connery does have a long film career, and yet he has few memorable roles outside of James Bond; he also seems to have delivered few performances that are considered tour-de-forces. Sure, he got the Oscar for The Untouchables, but as Sick Boy noted in Trainspotting, "That means fuck all. It's a sympathy vote." But here Connery delivers a performance that shows a range and passion the Scotsman has rarely shown before or since. It may be initially disconcerting to see James Bond break down weeping in front of his superior officer, but ultimately it's inspiring and almost revelatory to witness Connery's work here.
It's unfortunate that The Hill was filmed in black & white, because the blinding sun and endless expanse of sand would have provided a far more intense backdrop if they could be seen in color. At least the picture is clear and almost speck-free, which is about the best we can expect for a 40-year-old film that doesn't have nearly the fan base it deserves. The only extras are "The Sun…the Sand…the Hill," a forgettable, seven-minute making-of that was created for the film's initial release, as well as the trailers for a series of war films all released in 1965.
It is worth noting that Sidney Lumet has got one of the most impressive resumes in filmmaking history; though the last few decades have been largely fruitless (two exceptions: the criminally underrated Deathtrap and Night Falls on Manhattan), he's directed several great films: Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Pawnbroker, and 12 Angry Men, just to name a few. The Hill might be one of the lesser known projects from Lumet and Connery, but it's a showcase for some of the strongest work from either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Featurette "The Sun . . . The Sand . . . The Hill"
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