Tuesday, May 5, 2009

“We’re all doing time…even the screws…”

TCM’s Star of the Month this month is none other than Bond…James Bond—better known as Sean Connery when he’s not tending bar. Although Connery did a great many movies in which he was not licensed to kill, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™* is naturally playing up the fact that of the fifteen films to be featured this month, six of them are Bond films—previously unseen on TCM, as the promo points out. (This is probably because the entire Bond library was for many years the mainstay of Spike TV—formerly The Nashville Network—which, starting with Dr. No (1962), would play all of the available Bond films continually in a loop…and the sad part about this is that Spike continued this charade for three months before anyone even noticed. (Okay…I may have made that last part up.)

Sunday night, I got the opportunity to watch a Connery movie that I had not previously seen—well, perhaps I need to clarify this. I tried to watch The Hill (1965) many, many years ago but the first half-hour of the film consists of British actors barking at one another (they’re playing Army officers who run a prison camp in North Africa in WW2) and because it was difficult to understand what they were going on about (I love the British, but sometimes they can really be unintelligible for a people who lay claim to creating the English language) I gave up on the movie. But thanks to the modern-day marvel of closed captioning, I was able to watch The Hill in its entirety without any difficulty. Connery won his “career Oscar” in 1988 for his supporting role in The Untouchables (1987), but I’ve long agreed with Danny Peary (and his book, Alternate Oscars) that he was never better onscreen than as Trooper Joe Roberts, who struggles to maintain some shred of dignity when forced to kowtow to the tyrannical R.S.M. Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), the self-proclaimed administrator of the military prison (“The Commandant signs bits of paper. He'd sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him.”).

Roberts, Jocko King (Ossie Davis), George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) are the new “fish” assigned to serve out their punishment in the prison…with Bartlett a conniving spiv who caught selling ten tires to the enemy, King for stealing three bottles of whisky from the sergeant’s mess, McGrath for picking a fight with three officers and Stevens stowing away on a ship to England, anxious to get home and see his wife. It is Roberts, however, who’s committed the most serious crime in the eyes of the military prison authorities—disobeying a direct order from his commanding officer and then belting him in the mouth, he’s been stripped of his Sergeant Major rank for cowardice.

This motley crew ends up being supervised by newcomer Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), a sadistic little prick who fancies himself another Wilson by treating the five men with vindictive cruelty and continuously punishing them by ordering them up and down a man-made hill in the stifling, sweltering heat. This drilling soon takes its toll on Stevens, who expires from the experience despite the warnings from Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris (Ian Bannen) that Stevens was physically unfit for that kind of duty. Stevens’ death is the camel that’s now buried in a big straw stack for Roberts—who encourages the prisoners to rebel against the treatment they receive from tyrants like Wilson and Williams, and manages to win the support of Harris and the prison’s medial officer (Sir Michael Redgrave) in his cause until a series of events spiral into failure and utter futility.

The Hill is an intense yet not-for-the-squeamish look at man’s inhumanity to man, and if you’ve never seen the film I think you’ll really be bowled over by Connery’s performance. He keeps it light at the beginning, demonstrating the same insouciance on display in the Bond films, particularly in the first meeting with the despotic Wilson:

WILSON: Your commanding officer gave you an order…he ordered you to fight…so you knocked his teeth out…is that right?

(after a pause): Is that all you’ve got to say?
ROBERTS: Sir…it’s all I want to say…

(motioning toward the hill): See that hill?
ROBERTS: I noticed it as I came in…

: We built it special…a few tons of sand and rock and a lot of labor and sweat…the prisoners built it…
ROBERTS: Well, that’s marvelous, sir…it’s a great construction feat…

(after another pause): Something tells me you’re going to get to know it well…
ROBERTS: I don’t want any special privileges…

: It gets hot on that hill…hot
ROBERTS: Fancied I saw snow on the top when I came in…

: Dead set on having a go at it, aren’t you?
ROBERTS: Oh, I can do without it, sir…but I think you’ve got other plans for me…

We’re predisposed to like Roberts, since he’s played by the same man who also appears as the super-heroic 007—but there are still a few nagging doubts about the character, particularly his reluctance to talk about why he was charged with cowardice. His situation is slowly explained throughout the film until we learn that Roberts was trying to protect his men from a useless and ultimately suicidal order (shades of Paths of Glory) issued by his commanding officer. One can almost imagine how the conversation went about, particularly when he explodes in rage at Wilson and his outdated “code of honor”: “So what's the charge? Failing to obey an order? Or, drunk in charge of a cigarette lighter? Oh, you crazy bastard! You'd prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!”

The supporting cast—even man-jack of them—turn in splendid performances, particularly Andrews, a long-time favorite of mine who I remember so fondly for appearances in films as diverse as The Deadly Affair (1966) and The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). Hill was also the first film to team Connery up with director Sidney Lumet, both of whom worked so well together that they made four additional films: The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989). (Sadly, the only film of these that will be run on TCM in addition to The Hill is the first.)

My esteemed blogging colleague Rick Brooks (who is currently working on an audio book version of Moo, Baa, La La La [don’t ask me to explain this, it’s a Facebook joke]) mentioned that while he openly embraces TCM On Demand he does take issue with the fact that most of its content consists of “movies that are in heavy rotation on the channel” and I second this emotion as well. But I do want to thank TCM for giving The Hill a berth on its Incredibly Shrinking On Demand Lineup; it was a most worthwhile viewing experience.

*Yeah, I swiped this from Rick as well.


Samuel Wilson said...

The Hill is a powerful film that manages to be gritty while displaying almost oppressive art direction. Outstanding acting is on view all around. For those who want to see Connery away from Bond during this series, this should be exhibit A.

Flickhead said...

Without forewarning, Comcast removed TCM from my service. I can get it if I pay more, which seems ridiculous, in light of our relatively new HDTV. TCM and anything else not broadcast in HD look blotchy.

It's not a TV or cable malfunction; this is apparently how HDTV works. HDTV has its good points, which are outstanding; and its bad points, which make me think I really didn't need to buy all this stuff.

Rick Brooks said...

I appreciate the credit, Ivan, but I'm just glad to see the gospel being spread about TCM.

I do want to check out "The Hill," and it's a nice, relatively off-the-beaten-path addition to the On Demand lineup.