The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

The Three Kings (2020) ****

This is a testament to cinema. This was the last film I saw in a cinema before the current (second lockdown) and as the year draws to a close I would like to remember the days when it was common to visit the cinema once or twice a week. Not to be confused with David O. Russell’s similarly-titled Persian Gulf War picture starring George Clooney from 1999, from which this picture could not be further removed given that it is the study of three Scottish football managerial geniuses who in their way created the basis for the business empires of Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow’s Celtic F.C.

The death of Diego Maradona and the subsequent grief that swept Argentina is the most recent example of the power of football. The Three Kings demonstrates that this is anything but a new phenomenon. And it also very much a story of the 1960s when these three kings of football ascended their thrones.

Jock Stein (of Celtic), Matt Busby (of Manchester Utd) and Bill Shankly (of Liverpool) were born within 30 miles of each other in grim Scottish mining communities. Busby and Shankly played at international level for their country but Stein, after a career in the lower echelons of football, was surprisingly hired by Celtic in the early 1950s where his leadership skills led him to be made captain of a team he subsequently led to the Scottish championship. As managers, they reached fabulous heights, Stein and Busby leading their teams to European Cup glory, Shankly’s Liverpool dominating English football for several seasons.

As much as it is about their individual triumphs and tragedies – Busby lost most of his team and nearly his own life in the Munich Air Disaster, Stein nearly died in a car crash – it is also most pertinently about the importance of football to a community. Shankly saw his team as in service to the city. But it was also about their combined global reach.

This is a personal film for me. I grew up in and around Glasgow just as Stein’s team was reaching its peak. My father used to take me and my brother all over Scotland in his car to support the team. (My knowledge of geography owes much to the teams Celtic played in Scotland and Europe.) We were at Motherwell in 1966 when in the dying minutes Celtic won the game to clinch their first title in a dozen years. We were at Celtic Park the following year when in the dying minutes our team won the quarter-final against the Yugoslavian champions Vojvodina Novi Sad and of course we sat glued to the television on May 25, 1967, when Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup (the fore-runner of the Champions League).

The film is based on the book by Leo Moynihan.

In winning the European Cup, the first time anyone outside outside the Latin heartlands of Spain and Italy and Portugal did so, Celtic – with a team drawn from 30 miles around Glasgow rather than global galacticos – joined Europe’s elite, in the company of such names as Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Celtic’s verve and audacity appealed to neutrals around the world. Manchester Utd’s fabled trio of Best, Law and Charlton, plus the legacy of the Busby Babes killed at Munich, gave that team a global platform. In Shankly Liverpool had a master of the soundbite who talked like James Cagney and did the spadework for the Liverpool teams that would dominate Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

Whether they realised it or not, the trio put their teams on a pedestal few have reached and the film estimated that a quarter of the globe’s entire population currently supports one of the three. It is also a testament to the burden carried by the managers. By the age of 62 both Busby and Shankly had retired while Jock Stein Stein died from a heart attack in the dying seconds of a vital World Cup qualifying game while managing Scotland.

The film also captures the unique circumstances of each of the working-class cities where football was the lifeblood. All three had other major football teams and it would not be unusual for a quarter of the city’s populations to attend football matches on a Saturday afternoon. Cities that had been destroyed by the Second World War and suffered from a contraction of the workforce in the recessions of the 1960s turned to football as a lifeline. Men who otherwise contained their emotions would let them loose in raucous fashion when following their favoured teams.

Directed with at times great subtlety by Jonny Owen, also responsible for the film about Brian Clough’s Eurropean Cup-winning Nottingham Forest I Believe in Miracles (2015), and incorporating rare archive footage, the documentary looks back to a time when football passion could transcend adversity.

Here’s the link to the DVD: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=the+three+kings+documentary&i=dvd&crid=3MUGTRX0UJTWB&sprefix=the+three+kings%2Cdvd%2C154&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-a-p_3_15

It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) ****

I’ve never heard of the rock band Swearing At Motorists but like everyone else I’ve got misconceived notions about the rock’n’roll lifestyle of excess and how if you live long enough and are lucky enough you might find redemption at the end of the highway. So Jim Burns’ touching documentary It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll redresses that balance. Band frontman Dave Doughman has been a recording artist since 1995, making eight albums and about to set off on a tour where, if he’s unlucky, his audience might comprise six people, or an irate customer might insist on playing pool during the performance.

Dave’s the one in the hat.

He even does his own washing-up, takes his boy to school and has a day-job as a forklift truck driver. He doesn’t do it for the money or the fame – just as well since none has come his way – but because he wants to be a working rock musician. Since the band consists of Dave and a drummer, it’s up to him to put on a show, and, by golly, he’s the best one-man show in town, leaping up and down, playing the guitar on his back, burning off energy like gas is a dime a gallon, and keeping the tempo way above eleven.  

We catch up with him in Hamburg where he’s living. He’s single and trying to become the dad his dad wasn’t, developing a relationship with his young son, his life revolving around taking his son to and collecting him from school, fitting in songwriting and recording in between. Trying to make money when you are not particularly famous is the hard part if you want to remain a working musician, so he’s the one also selling records and memorabilia at concerts. Publicity is scant. He’s delighted when he is the February selection for a local calendar and there’s a hilarious sequence where, echoing the famous Coppertone advert, he is photographed on the beach with a dog pulling down his pants.

On stage – energy encapsulated.

But it’s one version we get of him in Germany and another when he goes on tour back to homeland America and we find out that he was on the excess express for 27 years and has only recently cut out drink and drugs and sought out treatment for depression in order to become the responsible father his father was not. I wondered what kind of tour this would be since he is relatively unknown, although John Peel has played his records and he was part of the Dayton, Ohio, music scene at one point. The answer is he plays bars and if he is invited to a festival he has the opening slot – at 10.30am. But none of that matters to Dave. He treats every gig as if he is playing Madison Square Garden or headlining Glastonbury.  It’s like the Field of Dreams of rock. Waiting for people to come, even if not many always do. But he gives the kind of performance nobody who does come will ever forget, as some concert-goers testify, and as we can see for ourselves.

The forklift truck driver shows us the way.

This being a documentary and me never having heard of this guy I had no idea where the story was going to go. I certainly didn’t think I would be totally engrossed, not so much by the later revelations, but by the guy’s honesty. In a business where artifice is often everything he is under no illusions. Even if the music doesn’t grab you by the balls, Dave Doughman has an unusual charisma. The camera loves him. And he’s not even mugging to the camera, this isn’t an act like so many other documentaries on rock stars. This is the real thing. And even when he’s electric on stage you’re still left thinking of his dichotomy – how is he going to bring up his son if he has to be thousands of miles away touring? This is an insider’s look at the genuine life of a rock musician – and not to be missed.  That rare thing – a rock documentary with soul.

You can catch this on demand at Vimeo. Check out the trailer below.

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.