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 Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.

Station Six Sahara (1963) ***

David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.  

It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.

There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.

The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.

Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.

The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.  

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