This is a fantastic movie and an extremely unique entry in the everlasting prison film genre. Rigorously directed by Sidney Lumet and released in 1965, The Hill is one of those “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” type dramas, a true product of its time, and yet still totally relevant and exciting in this day and age. Starring a phenomenal Sean Connery in a decidedly un-Bond performance as a former tank operator who is sent to the stocks after assaulting his superior officer, The Hill centers on a British army prison stationed in North Africa during WWII, and evokes a sense of stark realism and fatalistic danger all throughout. Featuring a rock-solid supporting cast featuring Harry Andrews (absolutely brilliant), Ossie Davis (very memorable and scene-stealing), Ian Bannen, Ian Hendry, Roy Kinnear, Michael Redgrave and Alfred Lynch, everyone gave ultra-committed performances in what were clearly very hard working conditions; you feel everyone’s pain in this film. The lean and to-the-point screenplay by Ray Rigby, which was based on the play co-written by Rigby and R.S. Allen, never wasted a word, and Lumet’s precision-tooled filmmaking style allowed for a zero-fat narrative with an excellent sense of physical locations and the importance of conveying spatial distance between key portions of the massive, sprawling set.
The title refers to the main form of punishment for the dishonorable soldiers, a massive sand hill that requires constant attention and which more than occasionally leads to someone collapsing from sheer exhaustion. The reality of the situation that these characters face is never lost on them, and the narrative allowed for some interesting interpersonal dynamics to take root. Shot with ultra-clarity in silky black and white by cinematographer Oswald Morris, The Hill looks magnificent on the WB Archives DVD; I can only imagine how it might appear on a restored Blu-Ray. This is a brutal, unflinching film, looking at an extremely grim aspect of war that is sadly unavoidable, and because Lumet’s focus was so sharp, every single moment hits very hard during this exceedingly tough piece of cinema. You feel the excessive heat in every shot, and because the film centers on rather unpleasant material, this might be an endurance test for some viewers. But in general, this is yet another motion picture that confirms Lumet’s master-status in the pantheon of great filmmakers.