Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Hill

In 1965 Sean Connery was granted time off for good behavior from the Bond series to star in Sidney Lumet's intense WWII prison drama The Hill. Set in a North African British military jail for deserters, thieves and trouble makers, Connery plays British officer Joe Roberts incarcerated for striking his superior. Roberts along with 4 other new arrivals are forced to submit to a regime of brutal physical manoeuvres under the supervision of Sgt Major Wilson who's job to mould weak flesh back into British soldiers is almost devotional. Also newly arriving at the prison is the sadistic Staff Sgt Williams whose eagerness to break Roberts and his cell mates will tear down Wilson's tight reign over the prison...

The Hill, named after the camp's man-made hill inmates are forced to repeatedly climb over, is a remarkable film. Shot in luminous black & white by cameraman Oswald Morris (Lolita, Look Back In Anger), its a bleak, bitter, remorseless film, confronting institutionalized violence, physical and psychological head on. Clearly Lumet was mistrustful of instutions - his 1962 film Long Days Journey Into Night was about a family falling asunder from alcohol and drugs, his 1964 film Fail-Safe explored the mismanagement of nuclear weapons by the US government, while his 1971 film The Offense was about a man murdered in police custody.

Savour if you must the beautiful opening tracking shot (which surely impressed a young Brian DePalma), because Lumet's direction thereafter is mean and aggressive. Lumet often shoots right into the sun using rough hand held cameras, fast disorientating cuts and filming with rough available sound (the film features no music or score). Thankfully, Lumet's film is devoid of melodrama and sentimentally that was de rigueur of the prison film of that era (see Bridge on the River Kwai, Birdman of Alcatraz, Cool Hand Luke).

Most impressive of The Hill is its cast. Connery is superb as the resilient Roberts, and joined by an excellent supporting cast - cell mates Jack Watson (from Tower of Evil), Roy Kinnear (Taste the Blood of Dracula) and a memorable turn by Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing) who had to deal with much racial abuse in the script. Facing them down are Harry Andrews (Moby Dick) as Sgt Major Wilson, Ian Hendry (Repulsion) as the monstrous Staff Sgt Williams, and Ian Bannen as the sympathetic Staff Sgt Harris appalled by the cruelty of the fellow wardens. Harry Andrews has an especially wonderful scene where he defuses a near riot with a few a words of gentle but firm persuasion.

Warners R1 DVD of The Hill is low on extras but features a rather excellent transfer, taken from a flawless print, and looks sharp and bright. I watched this upscaled on my Blu-Ray player and the film looked dazzling. Audio is equally strong, and there a short 7-min promo for the film called Sun…the Sand…the Hill. Absolutely required viewing.


  1. I tried to watch this way back when on TV one night as a newly minted Bond fan - I was trying to bring more Sean Connery into my life. Having only experienced a few British accents - and mostly of the higher class in my film and television viewing - I was lost in the thick accents in this movie. I would love to see that DVD - and crossing my fingers that there will be subtitles...

  2. Craig, I can well understand that, and The Hill in particular is an unruly brew of disparate English dialects and accents (as well as Ossie Davis' West Indian tones). I had a similar experience a few months ago with Michael Powell's 1937 film Edge of the World, which is set on a remote Scottish island. Despite Scotland being close neighbors with Ireland (and we have a kind-of similar Gaelic language), I found the accents very tough going, so much so that the English subtitles that came with the BFI DVD were quickly summoned into action... But your point is well made - being English speakers we often take the presence (or even lack of) English subs for granted but it's something that all DVDs ought to have - I mean occasionally I'll see an American film, usually set in the mid-West or the Southern states (and not necessarily an Exploitation picture) that has dialogue I find hard to catch. Heaven's Gate is a good example, although the film always suffered from poor dialogue recording. I remember really struggling with the high school noir film Brick and that incredibly stylized dialogue... Craig, you probably remember seeing Mad Max with that American dub - watching the film now with the original voices reinstated, do you find the dialogue hard to understand ?

    1. I don't find the original Mad Max hard to understand now that I've finally gotten to hear it, that's true!