The kind of movie that gives you faith there are positives to star power. The Hill wouldn’t have been made, were it not for Sean Connery’s Bond cachet, and if it failed to create any waves at the box office, it still ranks one of the very best things most of its cast did. Which also goes for director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Oswald Morris (who won a BAFTA for his efforts).
It’s also the kind of picture which, when confronted by the empty fireworks of an awards favourite like 1917, serves as a reminder that intelligent, thought provoking war pictures can be made. Albeit, this one’s battlefield is far from the front line. I first saw The Hill several decades ago and was hugely impressed by its raw intensity; Connery and Lumet would reteam four more times, but only The Offence (also featuring The Hill’s Ian Bannen) would come close to matching the quality of their first collaboration.
Connery’s a former squadron sergeant major, stripped of his rank and sent to a military prison camp in the Libyan desert during WWII; he’s been accused of cowardice, but he attacked his commanding officer for refusing to lead his men into a slaughter (having already led them out of one). As such, he’s the “good guy” but he’s also not necessarily helping matters for those sharing his punishment detail, marked out as he is for particular attention. “Oh, I can do without it, sir, but I think you’ve got other plans for me” he tells Harry Andrews’ RSM Wilson. Connery had been angling for Andrews’ role, curiously enough – grittier as his Joe Roberts is, he isn’t that much of a leap from Bond. Connery would make that break in The Offence. As Lumet put it, he’s “real and tough and not at all smooth or nice. In a way he’s a ‘heavy’ but the real heavy is the Army”.
Because The Hill is about discipline above all else, and the sadism and brutality that come with it. Lumet, working from a screenplay by Ray Rigby (who also co-wrote the first episode of The Avengers, Hot Snow), based on his and RS Allen’s play, isn’t simply looking at those being brutalised, however, but interrogating the whole system. As much attention is paid to the fractured psyches of those inflicting the punishment (“We’re all doing time here, even the screws”), with Andrews’ veteran running a ship so tight he cannot admit to leaks, and his psychotic Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) taking full advantage of the fact.
Both are shown occupying a very thin line of comfort, which proceeds to disintegrate as the ground is pulled from under them (“You ain’t running this place, Bert, Williams is! Look at him! He took over days ago! You still haven’t caught on” implores Bannen’s sympathetic Staff Sergeant Harris). The Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave) is desperately weak, bullied into providing the diagnoses the RSM wants, such that the final wrestling match is over whether or not he will make a report highlighting Williams and Wilson’s punitive actions. Harris must navigate the treacherous territory of not appearing to Wilson as too soft, arguing for better treatment of the men while secretly enraged by his RSM’s callousness.
All those performances are riveting, but it’s probably Hendry who is most noteworthy, relentlessly cruel and twisted in his disciplining of the prisoners. He continually sends them up the titular hill (which he himself can barely even cross three times, and then during the cool of night) while inflicting all manner of additional punishments. Hendry rightly gets great notices for his seedy villain in Get Carter, but this earlier incarnation is just as memorable.
Particular focuses for his attention are Roberts, naturally, but also Ossie Davis’ Jacko King, forced to endure an unremitting wave of racist invective, to the degree that he eventual strips off his uniform, refusing to recognise the army or its officers (when he is eventually summoned before Norman Bird’s commandant, he relaxes on a couch and smokes his superior’s cigarettes, much to Bird’s confusion; Harris’ barely suppressed mirth is highly amusing).
But the worst impact of Williams’ behaviour is reserved for Alfred Lynch’s Stevens. He’s too sensitive for the army, as Harris tries to tell him early on: “You’ve got to learn how to survive”. Haranguing him for his weak character (“One of these shy lads are you, Stevens? I haven’t made my mind up if you’re fish or fowl yet, Stevens”), Williams ignores warnings that he’s in no fit state to go back to the hill so soon after a punishment detail; later Stevens, in an already confused state, collapses and dies.
Lumet and Rigby’s most fascinating choice here is that no one really gets on with each other or bonds; Roberts is sympathetic because he’s reasonable, Harris because he has the men’s welfare at heart and King because he’s so likeable, but this is nevertheless a den of strife, sweat and oppression. Roy Kinnear’s Monty Bartlett (funny as he is) and Jack Watson’s Jock McGrath are respectively trying to get out of anything at all and tiresomely belligerent.
Lumet returned to Rigby’s screenplay when he took the job, which had been heavily rewritten, and it seems he and the writer honed the original draft, excising a hundred pages; it duly won (shared) Best Screenplay at Cannes. What really impresses is that The Hill is two hours of, essentially, drilling – “There isn’t a lot of story” as Lumet put it – but it’s entirely taught, bouncing back and forth between the men in cell and their warders; you could cut the tension with a knife.
The masterpiece central scene has Wilson take Roberts out of earshot of the men, following the King’s Rules and Regulations (“An officer will not reprove a warrant officer or an NCO in the presence…” “or hearing of a private soldier”). Roberts’ attempts to explain why Wilson, “a good toy clockwork soldier”, is wrong falls entirely on deaf ears (he accuses Roberts of treason).
There are waves of hope (the near riot over the death of Stevens is abated by Wilson’s shrewd manoeuvring), not least the white-knuckle climax, as first it looks as if the MO is resolute. But then Williams goes to work on his resolve, and then the MO parries. And then, “Bang! No they don’t. The ending was deliberately caustic”. Thelma Connell’s editing is masterful, matching the sudden brutality of language and violence, while the photography carries a similar punch, utilising closeups and distorted wide-angle lens for maximum impact; the effect is claustrophobic and unremitting, unsettling the viewer.
Christopher Bray, in Connery: Measure of the Man, suggested The Hill “fails to ever quite shake off its stage origins” but I disagree; I don’t think that, if you didn’t know it had been a play, it’s something you’d consciously contemplate while watching it. It’s too taut, too immediate, too concentrated in energy. Admittedly however, it is a very written piece in dialogue terms, deliciously so, and that makes it enormously meaty actor fodder. It’s an absolute treat to see every one of the thesps here digging in. The Hill’s a three-course feast in that regard.
As noted, the picture wasn’t a hit, with the suggestion in Aubrey Malone’s Sidney Lumet: The Actor’s Director that its US failure was because of unintelligibility of the dialogue. I doubt that, however. It may not have helped, but the picture is too unwelcoming, bleak and stinging a prospect for audiences wanting more Bond (and in black and white too).
Nevertheless, it amounted to a critical success for Connery, receiving six BAFTA nominations including Best Film (and Best Actor for Andrews). It was also seen as troublesome in its attitudes to the military, such that Cannes jury member Rex Harrison, troublesome himself, wired the Queen to let her know The Hill was in danger of winning win first prize. Fortunately for the monarchy and the British Army, it had to settle for a forgettable screenplay award.