The Hill (1965)

I got to know of the passing away of Sean Connery through social media. I logged in to Facebook on the evening of October 31, and saw several people posting tributes to the ‘best Bond there ever was’. One person in my newsfeed posted a still from The Name of the Rose, but even she couldn’t resist the temptation to also talk of Connery being the best James Bond.

I suppose that is how Connery will go down in popular memory: Bond, after all, is a hugely popular character, and Connery, I will admit, made for a suave and very attractive Bond. But Connery could be so much more, as this poignant tribute from Anu discusses.

I liked the James Bond films when I was younger; I saw pretty much all of them. In recent years, though, I’ve begun to not enjoy them as much, mostly for their shallow portrayal of women. So, to pay tribute to Connery, I decided not to attempt a review of a Bond film: I knew, even without rewatching From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or the other films Connery starred in as Bond (I had already reviewed Dr No, here)—I knew I would end up cringing at the sexism in the film.

Therefore, this film, which was made around the same time Connery was Bond. But oh, so different from Bond.

The eponymous hill is a manmade structure, a low hill that slopes down on two sides. It stands in the yard of a British military prison in the Sahara. World War II rages beyond the walls, and inside, Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) Wilson (Harry Andrews) makes (as he proudly claims) men of the men entrusted to him. These men are all guilty of infringing the code of the military, and often, the law itself: there are thieves here, and deserters, and people who have gone up against the iron-hard discipline of the British Army.

The latest arrivals, in a jeep covered with sand and dust, are five grimy men. Wilson lines them up, has them empty their kit bags out on the ground in front of him, and goes about making each of the men know that he knows exactly why each of them has been sent to this prison camp.

There’s Stevens (Alfred Lynch), who clings to his wife’s letters and had tried to desert, to go back home to England and his wife.

The others are not much better. There’s the West Indian Jacko King (Ossie Davis) who blithely admits to stealing whisky, being drunk, and possessing ‘obscene photographs’; Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) a thief who has been ‘inside’ nine times and has never seen action. Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) got drunk and beat up the military policemen who tried to stop him.

By turn, each of these men is at the receiving end of Wilson’s contempt: he’s sarcastic, he’s nasty, he makes it obvious that he thinks they’re scum. But Wilson reserves the worst of his derision for the last man in the line. Sergeant Major Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) is here because he disobeyed the orders of his superior officer to fight; he assaulted the officer, and that is why, as a result of a court martial, Roberts has ended up here.

Wilson points out the hill to them: he was the one who had it constructed by prisoners, he says. And they will become familiar with it soon enough. That hill is going to be punishment.

Accompanying Wilson is his second-in-commandant, Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry). Between them, they have the five newcomers go to the Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave). The MO is obviously bored or lackadaisical and seems not especially concerned about the men’s health (or lack of it). The mandatory physical examination all newcomers have to go through consists of him glancing at them once they’ve stripped down, and asking if there’s anything wrong. That’s it. Clean bill of health.

Once they’re all declared fit, Williams takes over. Wilson has already gone his way, and Williams has been anticipating this moment with relish, his chance to start breaking these men down.

Within hours, Roberts and the other four men have realized just how ruthless Williams is, how brutal. He quickly sets them on climbing the hill, going down the other side, then turning round and climbing up again… again and again, six times, under the blazing hot sun and with all their kit strapped on. They stumble and fall, they collapse in the dust, but Williams has them splashed in the face with water carried up in buckets by other prisoners—and as soon as they come to, he gets them started all over again.

King quickly becomes a target for Williams’s hatred: Williams’s racism is something horrific, and the contempt he pours on King is vile. King, while furious, gives back as good as he gets and is not cowed down by Williams—which only serves to make Williams even more furious.

Then, there’s Stevens. Stevens seems to have struck Williams as somewhat weak and effeminate, and so Williams decides to use that as a hook with which to needle Stevens: he calls him queer, he subjects him to homophobic slurs until Stevens can’t take it any more.

Wilson knows what is happening, but he couldn’t be bothered. His job is to keep the prisoners in check, and whatever techniques Williams uses doesn’t matter, as long as he gets the job done.

The other staff sergeant, Charlie Harris (Ian Bannen) is disturbed by all of this. He tries now and then to alert Wilson to what is going on, and to urge him to put a brake on Williams’s madness, but to no avail: Wilson basically tells Harris to mind his own business.

The camp commander, Major Appleby (Norman Bird) is rarely to be seen in camp: he seems to spend all his nights out in the nearest town, at a local prostitute’s. All we ever see of him is when he is driven into the camp the following morning. He alights from his jeep, his uniform all neat and ironed, his face baby-fresh as he sees the men, rank upon rank, standing there, sweating, waiting at attention to salute him.

Caught between the sadism of Williams, the connivance and apathy of Wilson, and the utter neglect of the commander, there’s not much hope for Roberts and the others.

Interestingly, Sean Connery took on the role of Roberts because it offered a change from the Bond stereotyping (his being part of the film also helped the film get funding). While The Hill itself didn’t do well at the box office, it won several awards and was critically acclaimed.

What I liked about this film:

The sheer grittiness of it, the way it exposes the harsh reality of life in the military. This is a war film that isn’t strictly about war (except for some conversations that mention battle), but in a sense it brings war very vividly alive: the fear of the men, the emphasis on being a good soldier, the discipline that is so integral a part of the army… the power and the politics of war are also played out in a smaller way here, within the confines of the camp.

Then, there are the characters. The Hill is less about story and more about characters, and the characterization is excellent. From the seemingly stoic Roberts to the nervous Stevens, from the brutal Williams to the pop-eyed commander, who only comes belatedly to a realization of what is happening in his camp: each of the characters named in this film is superbly etched. They’re all very different men, and with different shades to their characters (Williams is perhaps the only one who comes across as a little one-dimensional in his utter inhumanity).

It’s also worth noting that these men who take the moral high ground when it comes to ‘thieves and deserters’ are not quite paragons of virtue themselves. Both Wilson and Williams seem prone to alcoholism, and the commander, of course, would much rather spend his time with a prostitute than at the camp. The hypocrisy that comes through in the situation is ironic.

While on the characters of the film: a special mention of Ossie Davis’s portrayal of Jacko King. King faces racist attacks from both Williams and Wilson, and the way he reacts, with a broad smile and dry wit, initially seems to hide the anger that’s simmering within the man. When he finally loses control, though, he turns everything topsy-turvy. A brilliant character, and a fine bit of acting (interestingly enough, in real life, Davis was a prominent civil rights activist, so this is an appropriate role for him).

Oswald Morris’s cinematography in The Hill won the Best British Cinematography Award at the BAFTA Award, and deservedly so. The cinematography here is exceptional. There are extreme close-ups, for instance, zooming closer and closer in during moments of heightened tension. And a swiftly moving camera, going here, there, back again: for example, perfectly mimicking Stevens’s dizziness as he paces about the cell in his last scene. I must admit to not being one of those viewers who make special note of the more technical aspects of film-making, but every now and then, a film jumps out at me because its cinematography contributes so much to the film itself. This is one stellar example.

Then, there’s the screenplay (by Ray Rigby, who had spent time in a military prison) and the direction (by Sidney Lumet, also the director of the superb 12 Angry Men). This is so well done, with the tension mounting as the days pass, the stress getting greater and greater. And yet, the general apathy shining through: as Williams forces Stevens etc up the hill (and through other ordeals), the rest of the prisoners keep going through their daily routines like automatons. Calisthenics happen, men squat and stand and do exercises, just a few feet away from yet another prisoner who’s tumbled down, unconscious in the dust of the hill.

Not a nice film. If you want high adventure and escapism, opt for Where Eagles Dare or other such war films. The Hill is different. Not nice, as I said, but unforgettable.

RIP, Sean Connery. You will be missed.

10 thoughts on “The Hill (1965)

  1. Before umpteen others point out spy who loved me starred Roger Moore. Please do the correction.
    Before Connery’s passing away I thought I was the only one who liked him as Indy’s father. But now I know many in my circle who thought like wise —but were too ashamed to admit. He had the persona to look cool in just about anything and he did that role with a swagger.
    I am not ashamed to say that I did not know about the Hill. seems to be a good movie- Lumet makes it tempting but this will have to wait till covid is past us. When i do watch movies these days it is only light frothy stuff.

    • “Before umpteen others point out spy who loved me starred Roger Moore. Please do the correction.

      Thank you so much for pointing that out! I have made the correction. Just goes to show how one’s brain can do odd things. I was certain I was writing From Russia with Love (which I actually watched a couple of weeks back)!

      He’s wonderful as Indy’s father; I too am one of those (like Anu and you, from your comment below) who really liked him in that role.

      Yes, The Hill is not a film for when you want something light and frothy. It’s very grim.

  2. I read Anu’s tribute now and was more than amused. There it is ,one more in my league!Everyone seems to have loved Prof Jones Sr!!

  3. Sidney Lumet’s movies were always interesting. More to the point, he seems to be a rare breed – a warm, humanitarian director, whose cast and crew have always heaped accolades on him. And he was also one of those people who, when they had women characters in their films, really gave them a character arc.

    Have you watched Serpico It’s a bit off the timeline of your blog, but man, what a film!

    As a bit of trivia – Lumet directed Connery in five films.

    I watched The Hill a long time ago; it deserves a re-watch, but I’m not in the mood right now.

    (p.s. I was never ashamed to admit that I loved Connery as Jones Sr. :) )

    • As far as I can tell the only Lumet films I’ve seen besides this one are 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, both of which I loved. Not Serpico, but I will add that to my watchlist right now! Thank you for the recommendation, Anu.

  4. I remember watching this long ago, when I was on a Sean Connery spree. The cruelty brutality made it such a difficult film to watch. After this one, I think I gave up on trying to find another Marnie in his filmography!

    (I only ever watched Indiana Jones because I knew Sean Connery was in it – but then I mistakenly chose Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and landed up watching two Jones outings all for Jones Sr! :D )

    • I remember searching through all his filmography trying to find another film in which he played a role similar to the Marnie one! Or at any rate more a typical romantic hero. :-D

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