Seriously Sean – ‘The Hill’

 

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Social media quickly filled with tributes to Sean Connery when the venerable Scottish superstar died on October 31st.  Much, of course, was made of the fact that he’d been the cinema’s first and best James Bond.  However, I found it interesting that many people also talked about the post-Bond movies that Connery made in the 1980s and 1990s.  These were big budget, escapist and sometimes shonky, though lovable, action or fantasy films like The Time Bandits (1981), Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Rock (1996).

 

Which is all fine and good, but I was disappointed that more attention wasn’t paid to what Connery achieved back in the 1960s and 1970s, in between his assignments as Bond, when he clearly had ambitions to be not just a movie star but a serious actor.  He made several movies back then that were critically acclaimed but generally didn’t make much money.  Perhaps it was disillusionment at their lack of success that made Connery later take the easy route and appear in the simpler, cosier fare that people reminisced about after his death.

 

Anyway, by a coincidence, a few weeks before Connery passed on, I’d felt an urge to check out some of those older, more serious movies of his. A few I hadn’t seen before. Others I’d watched at a young age and failed to appreciate at the time, probably because I’d been perplexed by Connery’s failure to breenge onscreen in a Saville Row suit and introduce himself as ‘a shhhort of lishhhensed trouble-shhhoooter’. So now, as a tribute to him, I thought I’d post my thoughts on the Connery films that I’ve recently watched or re-watched.  I’ll start with 1965’s The Hill.

 

Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Hill is a war movie.  But it’s a very different beast from the previous war movie on Connery’s CV, 1962’s star-spangled blockbuster about the D-Day landings The Longest Day, which featured Connery briefly as a comic Irishman called Private Flannagan.  (It had him sporting the unconvincing – I’m being kind here – Irish accent that he’d already trotted out in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and would trot out again for his Oscar-winning turn as Malone in The Untouchables).

 

The Hill eschews the action, spectacle and heroism of conventional war movies because its setting is a prison for recalcitrant British soldiers – thieves, spivs, drunkards, deserters and those guilty of insubordination – in the Libyan desert during World War II.  Lumet and his cast and crew actually shot the film on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Almeria and Malaga in southern Spain.

 

Connery plays Joe Roberts, one of five new arrivals at the prison, or ‘glasshouse’ as it’s nicknamed.  Also in this batch of new inmates is young, timid George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), gruff northerner Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and rebellious West Indian Jacko King (Ossie Davis).  The fivesome find themselves in the custody of the hardnosed Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), who effectively runs the place.  Its Commandant is a rarely-seen and weak-willed figure, of whom Wilson says contemptuously: “The Commandant signs bits of paper.  He’d sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him.”

 

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The prison staff also include the essentially decent if somewhat effete Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris (Ian Bannon) and the weary but also decent Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave).  Unfortunately, any goodness projected by those two officers is cancelled out by the viciousness of another staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry).  Williams has recently been posted to the prison and sees it as a potential step up the promotional ladder.  He intends to make this ascent by impressing Wilson and treating his charges as brutally as possible.  “Don’t talk back, you different-coloured bastard!” he screams at King.

 

And that’s basically it.  The film is an ensemble piece with nine characters, five prisoners and four staff, stuck in the sweltering confines of the prison.  “We’re all doing time,” Roberts observes of the situation.  “Even the screws.”  We can believe this when we see how Wilson and Williams spend their evening hours, which is by getting as joylessly, pointlessly and paralytically drunk as possible.

 

However, there’s a tenth character too. This is the titular hill, a fearsome, steep-sided mass of sand that’s been assembled in the prison’s yard as a punishment for inmates who chaff against Wilson and Williams’ regime.

 

Williams instinctively homes in on the new arrivals and takes a particular dislike to Roberts, perhaps because of the offence that landed him here – Roberts punched an officer who’d condemned his men to death by ordering them to carry out a suicidal attack.  Stevens’ weak temperament also attracts Williams’ ire.  “One of those shy lads, are you, Stevens…?” he demands.  “One of those cads who can’t make up his mind whether he’s a boy or a girl?”  Predictably, Roberts, Stevens and the others are soon being forced to march up and down the hill, endlessly, in the blistering heat.  This has fatal consequences for one of them, which enrages Roberts and sets him on a collision course with Williams and Wilson.  Towards the end, the film’s suspense hinges on whether or not Harris and the Medical Officer will find the courage to intervene before Roberts receives a fatal punishment as well – by this point he’s already been crippled by a beating from Williams and his goons.

 

A situation rather than a story, The Hill is driven not by plot twists but by its performances, which are excellent.  Among the prisoners, Lynch is worryingly vulnerable as the hapless Stevens, while craggy character actor Jack Watson imbues his character McGrath with a fierce but not intransigent stubbornness.  He spends most of the film wanting to keep his head down and get his incarceration over and done with and he’s unimpressed by Roberts’ attempts to stir things up.  “You’re a clever bag of tricks, you are, Roberts,” he rages. “Not inside glasshouse half an hour and you use your bloody influence to get us a ride on the hill.  Oh I bet there’s one Saturday night booze-up your father’s always regretted.”  Yet later, sickened by what’s happening, McGrath gives Roberts his support.

 

The roly-poly Roy Kinnear, better known as a comic actor, plays the least sympathetic of the inmates, the cowardly and self-serving Bartlett.  But he wins our pity at one moment when he collapses while being made to run a strenuous assault course.  “I’m fat!” he cries pathetically.

 

And Ossie Davis, who was a writer and civil rights activist as well as a distinguished actor, is wonderful as Jacko King, the prisoner most immediately sympathetic to Roberts’ cause.  As a West Indian, a citizen of the British Empire and one of His Majesty’s subjects, he’s supposedly on an equal footing with the other soldiers – but of course, because of his skin colour, he isn’t.  He’s exposed to constant racism from both the screws and the other prisoners, though the quick-witted King gives as good as he gets.  When Bartlett has a go at him (“You’ve got it downstairs, mate, but we’ve got it upstairs.  Live up trees, you blokes do.”), King casually and accurately responds by describing Bartlett as ‘white trash’.

 

Later, when things come to a head, he defies Wilson and Williams by tearing off his uniform, renouncing his British citizenship and declaring that they don’t have the jurisdiction to keep him in the prison.  Actually, watching this in 2020, I was reminded of the Windrush scandal, engineered by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, wherein the British government showed elderly and long-term UK citizens of Caribbean descent what it thought of them by stripping them of their citizenship and deporting them without support to the West Indies.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Among the screws, Ian Bannon and Sir Michael Redgrave give strong performances, but they’re not as memorably forceful as those given by Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.  Which is as it should be, because what gives The Hill its grimness is the audience’s sense that the bad outweighs the good in the penal system depicted.  Hendry essays an out-and-out bastard whose moral compass was long ago destroyed by his ambition.  It’s a little sad, retrospectively, to note how lean and mean he looks here – for as the 1960s progressed, Hendry’s well-documented alcoholism took its toll and left him increasingly frail and gaunt.  (In 1970, he lost out on the title role of the crime classic Get Carter, which of course went to Michael Caine, because the filmmakers felt he no longer had the physicality for it and cast him as the film’s weaselly villain instead.)

 

But even Hendry is outshone by Harry Andrews as Wilson.  I’ve seen Andrews in countless films playing crusty old buffers or authority figures, but I wasn’t prepared for his performance in this.  Wilson is a ruthlessly hard man, driven by his determination to repair the British Army’s errant and broken soldiers and build them back into fighting men (with tough love obviously), but he’s also intelligent.  He’s aware – as Williams isn’t – that there’s a line that they can’t be seen to cross.  After an inmate dies of exhaustion on the hill and Wilson manages to hush it up, he tells Williams angrily: “We’re not celebrating our glorious victory…  We’re patching up a bloody disaster.”  And when the death triggers a full-scale riot, Wilson defuses it with a masterclass in underhand, calculating diplomacy.  He faces down a whole prison’s worth of inmates with a mixture of threats, bribes, dark charisma and pure bloody-mindedness.

 

As for Connery, it’s impossible not to think of Bond when he first appears.  He had, after all, just played 007 in the previous year’s Goldfinger (1964).  And there’s something Bondian about how he manages to get under his enemies’ skin in The Hill, although this isn’t done with the superspy’s famous insouciance but with Roberts’ righteous perceptiveness.  He senses that Williams, despite his brutal exterior, is a coward and observes that by getting posted to a Libyan prison camp he’s managed to avoid both the front line and the Blitz in London.  Meanwhile, he neatly sums up Wilson when he shouts at him: “Oh, you crazy bastard!  You’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!”

 

But any suggestion of Bond’s alpha maleness in Roberts is gone by the final reel, after Williams has had him beaten to a pulp and he’s confined to a bed.  And the film’s final image, of Roberts crawling piteously across the floor and pleading with a couple of his fellow inmates to stop what they’re doing – what they’re doing, in fact, is snatching defeat from the jaws of a hard-won victory – ends the film on a note of chilling, though tonally appropriate, bleakness.

 

The Hill is a stripped-down cinematic experience.  There’s no background music and it’s shot in black and white, which gives the sand an unsettling bone-like gleam.  But its sparseness isn’t a problem because it’s so engrossing, which is due to the excellence of its cast and the unfussy but confident direction by Sidney Lumet.  It was the first, but thankfully not the last collaboration between Lumet and Connery.  Indeed, their third film together, 1972’s The Offence, would be as memorably gruelling as this one.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

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