Inspecting Hidden Gem #59: The Hill
U.K. / MGM - Seven Arts Productions / 1965 / B+W / 123 minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
In the blisteringly hot Libyan desert during WWII stands a gigantic lump of sand British military staff and its Majesty's prisoners alike call "The Hill". On it these inmates are made to trudge up and down repeatedly until they can hardly breathe, their legs barely able to keep them up. In the film's beginning we see a couple of prisoners' joyous relief upon getting released and some dejected new arrivals sent in, whom we will focus on throughout their physically exhaustive journey inside, until we witness the pack's survivors exhibit their last spirit crushing moments. It's bad enough these five new arrivals have to endure the pompous, insulting R.S.M. Wilson who greets them with humiliation (a towering, authoritative Harry Andrews). There's also the unforgiving heat, gruelling physical workouts, and constant marching double-time even while holding their meals. Finally, this poor lot is especially doomed because of their newly appointed overseer, a gleefully sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams.
Williams (a brilliantly nuanced Ian Hendry), is depraved, power mad and full of repressed self-deprecation. His pleasure in punishing others has found an ideal setting to ply his trade. Since these prisoners are military personnel, they're accustomed to following orders without question. Williams' willingness to push his lust for discipline a bit further than the other staff will act as a catalyst that brings both his fellow officers and prisoners around him crashing down, stunned into a stupor of angry disbelief. The resulting hotter than lava situations will be unwittingly exacerbated by Major Wilson's manipulation of an outmoded bureaucracy and his naively ignorant superior officer. When the consequences of Williams' actions become dire, inmates will clash with guards, individually and in various groups. Staff will combat staff, even the prisoners will turn on each other. The effect of juxtaposing these highly volatile characters and situations is electrifying. Scene after scene will depict various staff challenging one another's authority. This will contrast mightily with the prisoners who represent the last vestiges of personal dignity and fundamental human rights. Just when the audience is ready to burst from these intense and unrelenting conflicts, it's shaken with one of cinema's most stunningly comical breakdowns: Inmate Jacko King, the camp's sole black British subject (played-up to perfection by Ossie Davis), who, when he's had enough of his tormentors, decides to "quit the army". King adds an especially meaningful distinction of having to tolerate his hellish stay in an overtly racist environment.
The luminous individuality of these characters is due to the expert screenplay by Ray Rigby, taken from his own theatrical play. Director Sidney Lumet adeptly handles Rigby's fiery dramatics like a machine gun with his customarily fast cutting, combined with lens distorted close-ups. He additionally elicits impassioned performances from his cast (including star Sean Connery in-between Bond films), all of whom dig deep to the emotional core of their roles. Practically every scene's a showstopper. The "on tap" cynical dialogue flows freely, the results of which we interpret as humorously sarcastic or frightfully threatening, sometimes both at once. Its characters are presented to us with such distinction, their reactions to this oppressive environment so individually precise, that the film resonates with a unique personal profundity. The Hill also contains subtle moments of quiet compassion. There aren't many, but they really stand out when they happen amidst the tremendous emotional turbulence.
The late Oswald Morris' commanding photography is a huge asset that's especially engaging during the hill climbing scenes. Furthering the harsh realism, no music was composed for the film. Instead, we hear in the long overhead shots of the camp (also played up at the story's ironic conclusion), the staff relentlessly barking orders at their prisoners: A symbolic reminder that no matter what, the status quo must and will basically remain the same inside these Government institutions. Still, this gripping and soul searching motion picture raises many important questions regarding the true cost of strictly applied rules and regulations, who really benefits, and how they can be abused by those in power. There's much to ponder long after The Hill closes with the sound of its cell door slamming shut.
The Hill is a Turner Classic Movies recommendation of the Month. It is scheduled to air on TCM (updated) Monday, December 4 at 1pm PST.