Hill, The (1965)

The Hill (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet.

A British military prison in North Africa, where they send the AWOL, drunks and thieves. It's a hard-working camp where the prisoners run and drill all day long. For punishment they repeatedly climb "the Hill" with heavy packs under the blazing sun: it's a man-made pyramid of sand and stone.

Now and then they get someone like Sgt Major Sean Connery from the tank corps: a professional soldier court-martialed for disobeying orders and striking an officer. He comes in with a group who are all trouble in their own ways.

Harry Andrews is the Regimental Sgt in charge ("The Commandant signs bits of paper. He'd sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him"). His job is to break the men down and build them up into soldiers again. He seems to be good at it, as brutal as need be without being murderous: "I've dented a few but never killed one." But then a prisoner does die, worked to death by a new Sgt, sadistically overdoing his job. (Ian Hendry, last seen as the sole surviving critic in Theater of Blood (1973)). Who will take the blame?

Great cast. I'm reminded of the saying "The Empire was built on the bones of Scotsmen". There are a lot of them in the British army, all pretty tough.

Ossie Davis is a soldier from the West Indies. I've always wondered what happens to prisoners who just sit down and refuse to drill any more. In reality I suspect they get kicked around until they change their minds, or are sent to a worse place. For some reason this line struck me as funny for 1965: "Don't answer back, you different-colored bastard!"

You can tell the story is adapted from a play because of the many conversation scenes. Cinematographer Oswald Morris compensates with swooping handheld camera work. A couple of shots look consciously composed for graphic symmetry but it's all good photography, convincingly miserable.

Filmed in Spain.

A lot of people think this is Connery's finest performance, vying with another Lumet film: The Offence (1972).

Available on DVD and rather fine looking.