9 July 2009

THE HILL (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1965, UK) - 'We're all doing time. Even the screws...'

In the film, 'The Hill' transforms into a metaphor for the disaffection and suffering endured by the men.

Directed by Sidney Lumet in 1965, ‘The Hill’ is one of those hard to find films, even though it regularly plays on the TCM channel each year. Still mysteriously unavailable on DVD in the UK, this relatively early film in the career of Lumet stands out as one of his best efforts from the sixties. Lumet mounts an intelligent, complex and angry critique of power and authority, drawing upon neo realist strands and a fierce antipathy for the dehumanisation of military life. Financed by a Hollywood studio and featuring Sean Connery amongst the talented ensemble cast, the visceral camerawork and crisp, monochrome cinematography by Oswald Morris seem more indebted to the free cinema movement in the UK and the radical chic of the nouvelle vague in France. The Internet Movie Database and BFI Database lists this as a British film and it’s hard not to see why.

Set on a British military prison in North Africa during World War II, the film explores the growing unease and tensions that exists between the prisoners (British soldiers who have been charged with criminal offences ranging from theft to cowardice) and military officers, namely Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) who have been given the terrifying job of imposing a fierce regime of discipline and fear. As a spectator, we bare witness to the shifting power relations between the anti authoritarian stance of Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) and the overpowering figure of Sergeant Major Wilson (Harry Andrews). Prior to Roberts arrival, the absolute control exercised by the uncompromising Wilson is anchored by the dazzling opening crane shot of the barracks in which the camera eventually pulls back to reveal the gruelling presence of ‘the hill’, a mound of earth that acts as a physical reminder of the undying idea of punishment - any attempt at rebellion will ultimately be at the mercy of ‘the hill’.

Unfortunately, the film is still unavailable on DVD in the UK.

Magnifying the ills of military life, Lumet’s film makes for relevant study in today’s increasingly militarised society – Roberts questioning of power and authority seems to hold a degree of truth that is equally applicable to all institutions, not just the British army. I think this is what makes Lumet’s film such a potent and contemporary one as the power relations that exist in the army are in fact representative of the way in which wider society is structured, and Joe Roberts open resistance serves to underline how the army as an institution demands assimilation, conformity and outright obedience. Like Samuel Fuller’s ‘Shock Corridor’, Lumet sets out and succeeds at illuminating the fragile nature of a sixties society which was trying desperately (and perhaps failing) to respond to the problems of race, sexuality, liberalism and emancipation.

Lumet is a prolific film maker and though he has a strong affinity with the crime genre, his career defining work in the 60s including exceptional political commentaries like ‘Fail Safe’ and ‘The Pawnbroker’ culminated in a personal kind of anger expressed in ‘The Hill’. It was also the first film in which Sean Connery was taken seriously as a credible actor, allowing him to break out of the typecasting which Bond would inevitably bring to his career. Having worked as the cinematographer on such films as Martin Ritt's 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold', Kubrick's 'Lolita', Huston's 'The Man Who Would Be King', ace British cinematographer Oswald Morris was an exceptionally talented artist who had an impressive understanding of how the monochrome image could be utilised for both ideological and aesthetic purposes.

2 comments:

  1. It certainly is strange that this isn't on DVD yet appears so often on TCM. It was made in Spain and at MGM-British in Borehamwood in the UK and it wasn't unusual for Hollywood directors to come over to make such films.

    I saw it on a re-release in the late 1960s. It's worth noting that at the time many of the cast and crew (and the audience) would have experienced National Service in the 1950s and there were other films like this, including The Bofors Gun (1968) and in a slightly different setting, Tunes of Glory (1960) and even the TV series Redcap with John Thaw (1964-6).

    I'm not sure about your casting comment in that Sean Connery's lead role in Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) was arguably evidence that he could be something else other than Bond. He was also in Woman of Straw opposite Gina Lollobrigida in the same year. In retrospect, the real surprise is to spot the great Ossie Davis, who I only came to appreciate in his roles for Spike Lee in the 1980s.

    As you say, a great cast, strong direction and great photography.

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  2. Marnie is often the film I overlook when considering the work of Sean Connery - I remember him being quite good in that one. I never realised it was also shot at Borehamwood - great production design then.

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