Lumet at 100: Celebration of Seminal, Quintessential Director, Born in 1924, Made 44 Features

Sidney Lumet directed The Hill, a powerful drama, set entirely within an army prison in North Africa during World War II, starring three great actors, Sean Connery, Ian Bannen, Michael Redgrave

It was Lumet’s ninth feature.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The Hill
Hill movieposter.jpg

original film poster

The all-star male ensemble (no women at all) includes Sean Connery in top form, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Ossie Davis, Ian Hendry, Alfred Lynch, Roy Kinnear, and Michael Redgrave.

In a British Army “glasshouse” (military prison) in the Libyan desert, prisoners convicted of offences such as insubordination, drunk while on duty, going AWOL or petty theft, are steadily punishment in the desert heat.

The arrival of five new prisoners leads to a clash with the camp authorities. One new NCO guard employs excessive punishments, which include forcing the prisoners to climb a man-made hill in the center of the camp.

When one dies, a power struggle erupts between brutal Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), Staff Sergeant Harris (Ian Bannen), Regimental Sergeant Major Wilson (Harry Andrews) and the camp’s medical officer (Michael Redgrave) as they have conflicting strategies.

Roberts (Sean Connery), a former squadron sergeant major from the Royal Tank Regiment, was convicted of assaulting his officer; ee was ordered to lead his men in a senseless suicidal attack. Roberts scorns Williams’s brutality and challenges his authority. The RSM is a career soldier, powerful within the prison, but realistic, “No one’s going to pin a medal on us.” However, he sees his duty to be that of breaking down failed soldiers, then building them back up again, “Into men!”

Staff Sergeant Williams, new to the prison, seeks to use the prisoners’ punishment as means for his own promotion. When Roberts is accused of cowardice, he asks Williams, “And what are you supposed to be, a brave man in a permanent base job?”

The RSM also questions Williams’ motives for getting out of London. He slyly mentions that the Germans were bombing the UK (including the civilian prison where Williams worked) just as Williams was volunteering for prison duty in Africa.  Williams admits that he is trying to impress the RSM by showing that he has got what it takes to do the job.

Staff Sergeant Harris, the prison’s moral conscience, sympathizes with the men too closely. The officers, both the CO (Norman Bird) and the medical officer, take their duties casually, as Roberts points out, “everyone is doing time here, even the screws” (prison officers).

The camp’s medical officer and Staff Sergeant Harris decide to report the abuses at the camp. Sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams goes to administer one final beating to Roberts, when two prisoners begin to beat Williams.

In the last, rather ambiguous scene, Roberts pleads (in vain) with the prisoners to stop, knowing that no matter what, ultimately, it’s the staff officer who have the upper and stronger hand.

The film was based on a screenplay by Ray Rigby, who wrote for TV and had spent time in military prison.

“There really isn’t a lot of story,” said Lumet. “It’s all character, a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.”

Sean Connery: Break from James Bond

Sean Connery embraced the offer, because it represented such a change of pace from playing James Bond (though financial backing was based on his popularity in the Bond movies).

Shooting took place in Almeria, Spain, using an old Spanish fort in Málaga as a prison.

To accentuate a more authentic dramatic effect, the soundtrack is naturalistic, lacking any musical score.

Despite favorable critical response at the Cannes Film Fest, where it premiered and won the Best Screenplay, the movie was not a commercial success, perhaps because of its relentlessly grim and downbeat tone.

Sean Connery as Joe Roberts
Harry Andrews as Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson
Ian Bannen as Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris
Alfred Lynch as George Stevens
Ossie Davis as Jacko King
Roy Kinnear as Monty Bartlett
Jack Watson as Jock McGrath
Ian Hendry as Staff Sergeant Williams
Sir Michael Redgrave as the Medical Officer
Norman Bird as the Commandant
Neil McCarthy as Burton
Howard Goorney as Walters
Tony Caunter as Martin


Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by Kenneth Hyman
Written by R.S. Allen (play), Ray Rigby (screenplay), based on The Hill, 1965 play by Ray Rigby
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Thelma Connell

Production company: Seven Arts Productions

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: May 1965 (Cannes Film Festival)
Running time: 123 minutes
Budget $2.5 million
Box office $4.3 million

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