There is a scene in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965) that is probably going to make your jaw drop when you see it for the first time. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) and Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews) are shouting at each other in the middle of a military detention camp, and it is the single greatest moment of acting in a film that is full of dozens of splendid acting moments. Roberts has only been in prison for a week, but he has already had his foot broken and his face beaten senselessly—yet the ruthless Sergeant Major Wilson is still punishing him, still forcing him to double out in the hot sun. Wilson tries to convince Roberts that it is only for the best. “Discipline!” he shouts. “The army’s run on discipline!” But Roberts has seen too much military abuse in his day, and he will not give in to “discipline” any more.
He’s in jail, actually, precisely because of his disillusionment with what the army has become. With tears in his eyes, he tells Wilson like it is: “I’m a regular soldier because I couldn’t get a bloody job in civvy street! But I was a good toy clockwork soldier—just like you are!” The argument between Roberts and Wilson becomes so heated, in fact, that at one point they both realize that the whole camp has fallen silent. Everybody is staring at them. Wilson, embarrassed, yells at everybody to get back to work. Then he turns to Roberts, and declares that he’s going to push him to the limit, and make him do whatever he’s damn well told until he is reformed into something the army can be proud of.
I have seen many antiwar dramas, many prison flicks and many POW movies, but The Hill is a film that has stayed with me. It could very well be the most painful film I have ever seen from any of those genres. And I’ve seen LeRoy's I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke—all fantastic pictures that smack you silly whenever you watch them, but The Hill just seems to hit the hardest. Some will find it a chore to sit through. Personally, I think it’s an easier film to sit through on a second viewing, but of course that was because I knew what to expect, and knew when the most blistering sequences were coming. One thing’s for sure: I would hate to have to have done time at this camp.
The Hill takes place in a British Army detention camp located in the Libyan Desert during WWII, where the soldiers are doing time for a various set of reasons. King (Ossie Davis), a black man from the West Indies, is in jail for stealing (and drinking) bottles of whiskey. Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) sold car tires to the enemy. McGrath (Jack Watson) got in a fight with the police. And Stevens (Alfred Lynch) is a deserter, obviously not cut out for fighting, who only wanted to get home to his wife. When King, Bartlett, McGrath, Stevens and Roberts first step into the camp, Lumet shows us two soldiers who are triumphantly walking out: relieved to have survived, they shake hands and hug. They are first seen walking up “the hill” in the two-and-a-half minute opening crane shot. Soon, Roberts and his four cellmates will find themselves doubling up and down this sandy hill.
Roberts sees his punishment as a mishandling of justice. He’s doing time because he assaulted a commanding officer who ordered him and his men on a suicide mission that ended in disaster. His memories are eating him alive, and he is bitter about failing to save his men. None of them came back alive. Now he is in prison for fighting for what he believed in, kept under the watchful eye of both the Sergeant Major Wilson and a new staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry), who sees his new job as an opportunity to torment prisoners, rather than reform them. When Wilson tells Williams about Roberts’ rebellious past, Williams immediately makes it a point for himself to abuse Roberts at every chance he gets. “The court martial broke you, but I’m gonna finish the job,” he growls at Roberts. “I’m gonna bust you wide open.” Roberts is unmoved: “I’ve got your number. You’d work as a dustman if they gave you a uniform and a couple of men to yell at.”
As in other prison films, the men find little ways to revolt against the staff. There is a wonderful sequence in which Roberts, sick and tired of doubling up and down the hill, sits down for a break; staff sergeants are ordered to douse him with water, and in defiance he takes a shovel and counter-douses the staff with wet sand, inspiring the other four men to do the same. For one glorious moment, Roberts and his cellmates own the hill, and are rolling around in the sand like schoolboys. And there’s the later scene in which King, aggravated at Sergeant Wilson’s constant racial slurs, throws a tantrum, rips his uniform to pieces (“This is what I think of British justice!”) and parades around the camp in his underwear.
In effect, the entire camp has a chance at rebellion in the wake of the death of Stevens, who fatally ends up a victim of Williams’ harassment: first Williams forces Stevens to double up the hill twice in a row, and then he forces him to double up the hill all by himself while wearing a gas mask. No human being could handle such agonizing pressure. There is a sad scene in which Stevens, clearly on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown and about to be doubled yet again by Williams, turns to Roberts in a last desperate attempt for help. “Please Joe, make him leave me alone,” he cries. “Please help me. I can’t take it any more.” In this beautiful moment, Roberts possibly sees in Stevens one of the men he failed to save on his suicide mission—and Williams, who stands back and grins at Stevens’ suffering, is the controlling commanding officer. But when Stevens finally collapses and dies in his cell, everybody--including Roberts--is laughing at him.
Stevens' death inspires the best-remembered sequence in the whole film, all of the camp's prisoners, enraged by Stevens’ death and demanding to know how he died, are all let out of their cells at once, banging their mess tins and chanting, “Stevens! Stevens!” It is here when Roberts and his three remaining cellmates rise to the occasion and join in the chant. Then Sergeant Major Wilson intervenes, and tries to change the subject by cracking jokes with the prisoners about smoking contests and promising them cheese for lunch, while at the same time threatening to charge “every fifth man” with mutiny if they don’t quit complaining about Stevens’ death. A staff guard asks him if the staff should bring out guns to coerce the prisoners, and Wilson retorts, “Where the hell do you think you are? CHICAGO?” What is terrifying about this sequence is that Wilson is seen as charismatic and as somebody loved by the prisoners despite the fact that he is the true villain of the film: Williams may be the one carrying out the brutal orders, but Wilson is the one who is actually giving them.
Roberts suspects that Stevens died as a result of abusive pressure at Williams’ hands, but only King is willing to back him up on the accusation. Bartlett, like a real coward, refuses to talk and presses the staff to get him transferred to another cell, while McGrath won’t talk simply because he sees the situation as hopeless. “We’re inside, Sergeant Major—inside!” he privately confesses to Roberts. “And the bloody world doesn’t give a damn! We’re the horrible 2%, the dodgy boys, the spivs, the cowards, the thieves! We’re the weak chain in the system!”
What Roberts does not know is that Harris (Ian Bannen), perhaps the only good-hearted staff sergeant working at the camp, is willing to rat out on Williams; when Roberts and King turn out to be the only ones willing to testify against Williams to the camp’s Commandant (Norman Bird), Harris decides to pitch in. This results in a hilarious scene in which King barges into the Commandant’s office in his underwear and “recommends this brand” of cigarettes, to the Commandant’s bafflement. What’s more funny is that the Commandant, who is seen in earlier scenes romancing a fat wife in bed, is fairly stupid, and doesn’t catch on until late that there has been a recent death at the camp. “Who died?” he asks in stupefied confusion (“GEORGE STEVENS!” King screams).
As was Lumet’s intent, the film echoes with a stinging sense of realism. “The physical hardship of the actual shooting is something that coincides with the physical hardship that’s necessary for the film”, he told an interviewer on the set, “and through it all--the caked sands, the windstorms going on while we were shooting, the cracks in the lips--those were all for real.” Working from a screenplay by Ray Rigby (based on his play, which was co-written with R.S. Allen), Lumet tries to capture as much of these “hardships” in the film as possible.
In the scene where Roberts and Wilson are yelling at each other, for example, we can feel their frustration and their impatience; Roberts calls Wilson a “crazy bastard” and adds, “you’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!” Then Wilson barks back, “Right! You’re RIGHT!” This is when we realize that Wilson is exactly what Roberts has accused him of being: a toy clockwork soldier, irrationally determined to follow orders and ensure that orders are followed. As the film is rolling towards a close, Wilson and Williams try to blackmail the camp’s doctor (Sir Michael Redgrave) into admitting that he was the one who passed Stevens as healthy enough for punishment, but this attempt drops with a thud, and Wilson, who previously is seen roaring at the top of his lungs (“In twenty-five years, I’ve never known a balls-up like it!”), is now seen with egg on his face. “I run this place! Me!” he pathetically mutters. “I say what goes and what don’t go!” He even feels the need to say this twice. It does him no good.
The film was made in the same year Lumet directed Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, and illuminated him as a filmmaker well on his way to becoming one of America’s greatest filmmakers--a reputation he would finally achieve in the 70’s and 80’s. Sean Connery had worked with Hitchcock on Marnie a year earlier, and with his performance in The Hill he continued to prove himself a terrific actor and not just a “fun” actor as evidenced in Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) or in the 007 pictures; he would work with Lumet again on The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989).
Of the rest of the cast, Michael Redgrave, as the timid camp doctor, is a long way away from his heroic train passenger in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). Roy Kinnear will probably be a familiar face to modern-day audiences as Veruka Salt’s spoiling father in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and seeing him as the doughy, whiny soldier in this film will show a side of him not as well known. It’s a real pleasure to see Ossie Davis in one of his younger roles, and there’s also something oddly creepy about his manic King character, who may or may not have grown up to be something like the Bible-quoting patriach who shoots his crack-addicted son dead in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). As for Harry Andrews, who worked earlier with John Huston on Moby Dick and The Mackintosh Man, his performance here is menacing to the extreme, and it scares the hell out of me.
Watching The Hill, I was surprised at how much the film moved me to take sides. It’s appalling for staff sergeants to treat prisoners in a military detention camp this way, and by the end of the film I was ready to see either Wilson or Williams get their brains bashed in. Sure enough, it is Williams who finally gets his just desserts. But Lumet is too wise a filmmaker to immaturely glorify Williams’ death, and instead looks upon it with unease. “Don’t touch him!” Roberts pleads to King and McGrath, as they prepare to knock Williams dead. “We’ve won! YOU’LL MUCK IT UP!” But by then, it’s too late.
The best Lumet films (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have a way of punishing characters who are essentially good people. And as he did with those films-- and as he does with The Hill-- Lumet proves that sometimes what the audience wants for the characters can, in fact, be the worst punishment of all.