The ‘hill’, the five new prisoners and their tormentor S/Sgt Williams

Under what has been, in effect, nine months of lockdown and no cinema visits, I have watched a lot of films online and on TV. I seem to have begun to relive my early years – watching films from the 1940s to 1970s. Last week I watched The Godfather (1971) for the first time since I saw it on release at, I think, the Odeon High Street Kensington in 1972. I was compelled to watch it all the way through until 2.30 am. There aren’t many contemporary movies that could manage to hold my attention on TV and Coppola’s control of his large cast and major set pieces is amazing. But last night I found a film to match The Godfather. My memory tells me that I saw The Hill in a re-release double bill at the ABC Holloway Road, probably in the late 1960s. It was paired with The Cincinatti Kid in a double MGM package. If I’ve remembered correctly, it was a long programme, especially because at one point the print was trapped in the projector and melted, holding up the screening for a short while.

The Hill is a British picture, made by the American company Seven Arts for MGM British at Borehamwood and on location in Almería with an old Spanish fort used to stand in for a British military prison in North Africa during the Second World War. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, the first, I think, of several films he made in the UK. The script by Ray Rigby was based on his own play and later became a ‘novelisation’. Rigby had himself been in a similar military prison and went on to write other novels based on his experiences, one of which I must have bought in the 1960s. He wrote widely for TV and the cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. The script won the Cannes screenplay prize in 1965.

A long shot of the hill, the new five, now broken, prisoners watched by the NCOs with swagger sticks

The ‘plot’ is relatively simple. The prison in wartime is filled with a variety of soldiers from those convicted of minor offences to more serious cases, but all of which need to be dealt with if morale and discipline is to be maintained in battle. The prison is run by the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) played by the incomparable Harry Andrews who runs a tight ship based on the idea that he can ‘break’ new prisoners and then ‘build them up’ into fighting men. His methods are brutal but effective. The officer in nominal charge (Norman Bird) spends most of his time with a local prostitute. The Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave) seems a weak and broken man himself, but he is responsible for the prisoners’ welfare. As in all classical narratives, the uneasy equilibrium is disrupted by external forces. In this case it is the arrival of a new Staff Sergeant from the UK, someone who was a prison warder before the war. S/Sgt Williams (Ian Hendry) is given the opportunity to ‘break in’ five new prisoners who have arrived around the same time. These five also seem to be familiar genre characters. Roy Kinnear plays Bartlett, a spiv type, stealing supplies and selling them to Arab traders. Jack Watson plays McGrath, the ‘hard’ man convicted of drunkenness and fighting and Alfred Lynch plays Stevens, the ‘weak’ man, a mild-mannered clerk who went AWOL, homesick and pining for his wife. The other two characters are more individuated. Ossie Davis plays a West Indian who has stolen booze from the Sergeant’s Mess and been found drunk on duty. As the only American actor in the cast, we might expect Davis to play a significant role in the narrative. But the most important character for the narrative development is Roberts (Sean Connery) who, as a CSM (Company Sergeant Major, a senior NCO) has been convicted of assaulting his officer and refusing to lead his tank company on a suicide mission. Roberts represents the ultimate challenge for Williams and for the RSM. The only other significant character doesn’t feature much until later. He is Ian Bannen’s more humane Staff Sergeant Harris.

Roberts and the unfortunate Stevens

The film’s title refers to a huge mound of sand carefully shaped and contained by stones from the desert. There is a wide and steep path of sand up one side and down the opposite side. This is the RSM’s ‘training’ device or more correctly, instrument of punishment and, indeed, torture. Prisoners are forced to march up and down the hill, with full kit or carrying bags of sand to be deposited at the top. The RSM knows the dangers of doing this, especially in the full sun/heat of the day and he is careful to push men only so far to exhaust them without killing them. Williams immediately uses the hill, testing out the new prisoners. I suggested that the plot was simple. We almost think we know what will happen from the moment Sean Connery appears. I’m sure some audiences will be trying to guess who cracks first and who wins out. I won’t spoil the narrative, but rather suggest that though much of the action in the film is familiar, the ending is possibly not expected.

A nice deep focus composition with the RSM and S/Sgt Williams in the foreground, Roberts between them in the middle ground and detail in the camp in the background

The key to the script’s success (alongside the performances and direction and Oswald Morris’ brilliant camerawork) is the use of ‘King’s Regulations’ as a pivot. This book of regulations governs procedures that deal with the conduct of all officers, NCOs and ‘other ranks’ in each of the three branches of UK armed forces. The book is the ‘bible’ of procedure and forms the basis for discipline. It confers certain rights and requires certain duties of all personnel. In narratives about military life it is a useful symbol for writers. NCOs in particular can to some extent bamboozle soldiers of other ranks in order to control them. But there is usually someone who has read the book, someone who challenges the system and who will be labelled a ‘barrack-room lawyer’ by the NCOs and officers. They must then isolate that soldier quickly before he gathers supporters and threatens insurrection. In The Hill this does indeed happen as the RSM is forced to send for the book when faced with a large group of angry prisoners. The problem here is that as a former CSM, Roberts (Connery) knows the ‘book’ very well and has thought through situations like this before. Some reviewers have called The Hill a ‘prison movie’ which is technically true of course, but actually it is a drama about discipline and responsibility. The RSM has made a mistake when the five new prisoners and the new S/Sgt arrive. He recognises immediately that Roberts is a problem and assigns the new man Williams to ‘break’ them (after they have been declared fit by the MO). His mistake is not to clarify the line of command because when S/Sgt Harris discovers what Williams is doing there will be a clash between NCOs of equal rank. The RSM  and the MO must also agree on their own responsibilities for discipline and general health of all the soldiers in the camp. The perfect storm is due to hit the RSM because of Williams and the five prisoners.

Ossie Davis figures strongly in the closing scenes . . .

The film’s cast is truly fabulous. Any British cinemagoer of the 1950s to 1970s is likely to believe that Harry Andrews represents every RSM and indeed any figure of British authority. Sean Connery in this film is not making his first major role after Bond as many accounts claim. He had already made Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock and Woman of Straw in 1964. Those were both ‘romance thrillers’ but The Hill takes Connery back to the grittier male narratives that he had made before he became a star and places him for star roles in later similar films. Ossie Davis would later become a beloved performer in Spike Lee movies but at this point in his career he had only small roles in films and was better known as a TV drama performer. In The Hill he has a significant role, offering a contrasting form of resistance to the system which undermines some of the inherent racism in the prison system. Equally important is Ian Hendry’s Williams. Hendry had been mainly a TV actor like Davis until the early 1960s when he rapidly rose to leading man status with the success of Live Now Pay Later (1962). The Hill should have further enhanced his status but his career seemed to plateau as he moved out of purely British films into more international productions. His power can be seen in his portrayal of S/Sgt Williams. Complementing the great performances and Lumet’s choreography of the action is the camerawork. This features an almost rhythmic pattern of high and low angles, close-ups and long shots, often with great depth of field, beautifully edited by Thelma Connell. As the tension mounts Oswald Morris uses a series of shorter lenses which distort the close-ups, making the angry faces in low angle shots appear even more disturbing.

I checked out the contemporary reviews in both Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight & Sound and although both reviews recognise Lumet’s skill in the first half of the film, they both feel that the last section dissipates the tension that has built up with something that is “hysterical” (MFB) or “frenzied shouting and TV studio debating points” (Penelope Houston in S&S). I’m not sure if either of the reviewers understands the film – or perhaps I don’t understand what they are trying to say? Houston makes a point about the Ossie Davis character which puzzled me. She argues that using ‘Negro’ (her terminology in 1965) characters like this “assumes a built-in audience response that encourages emotional double-dealing”. I’m still thinking about this and about an earlier exchange in the film in which the RSM suggests that ‘black men’ shouldn’t be drilled alongside white men. He seems to be implying that African soldiers must be treated separately according to Kings Regulations. But when Private King argues that he is West Indian and British, the RSM agrees he should be treated in the same way as the other prisoners. I’m not aware that the British Armed Forces operated any form of segregation in this way. Or was it something that only applied in the African regiments? To go back to Houston’s point, she might be correct that casting Ossie Davis in this role in some way upsets the dramatic balance, but most mainstream critics in the 1960s hadn’t yet got used to the idea that audiences could make their own readings of films and that the traditional way in which critics ‘judged’ a narrative was going to be challenged. These 1960s reviews also see the use of genre elements as automatically negative factors working against characterisation.

The Hill is still available on BBCiPlayer for 14 days from today. It has also recently been screened on Talking Pictures TV. If you are interested in these kinds of military dramas (i.e. not ‘war combat’ pictures), you may be interested in Tunes of Glory (UK 1960) and The Bofors Gun (UK 1968), both recommended.

The following trailer gives away several key plot details but does show the distinctive style of the film: