The Hill (1965)
Almost forgotten now, this tense and relentless prison drama stars a young Sean Connery as busted Sergeant Joe Roberts trying to survive a notorious Middle Eastern prison camp during the bloody campaigns of World War II.
Ably abetted by an excellent supporting cast including Ossie Davis and a surprisingly serious turn by Roy Kinnear, The Hill is a searing and bleak study of dehumanising bureaucracy, psychological torture and overt institutional cruelty. Brilliantly shot and superbly scripted, this simple premise follows the incarceration and steady deterioration of five very different characters as each one is hammered relentlessly by the incessant malice of a vengeful staff establishment.
As Roberts and his cell-mates are pushed to their physical and psychological limits, each one disintegrates under the stress to reveal both their own and the system’s shortcomings. The death of one prisoner finally pushes mutinous mutterings into outright rebellion as the rule of law rapidly breaks down, with the men turning on both their captors and one another. After a tense stand-off between prisoners and staff, order is finally restored when the inflexible camp commander at last shows some leadership, having been relentlessly undermined by one of his over-zealous underlings.
Although Connery and the others gave great performances, the real star of this show was Ian Hendry, whose brilliantly understated interpretation of a born sadist hiding in plain sight made the character of Staff Sergeant Williams one of cinema’s most chilling, believable and sadly neglected on-screen psychopaths. Hendry’s portrayal of a fearsome prison officer quietly building his own, personal power structure inside an established institution is as insightful as it is instructive.
Scripted by Ray Rigby, the true horror of The Hill is often lost on first viewing. It lies not in the physical torments of searing sun and endless drill, but instead it lurks in a hundred petty slights and humiliations as the screw is silently and relentlessly tightened. From the moment the inmates double in through the gates, Williams and the system behind him lay claim to every aspect of a prisoner’s being, both inside and out. Not only are the inmates ordered what to do and when, but also when to laugh, when to stop laughing, what to say and when to say it. The world of The Hill owns them mind, body and soul, and just as that mountain of sand and rock can be seen from all parts of the prison, so the men forced to march up and down it daily will live in its shadow long after they’ve served their time.
The Hill is a very unusual film. In many ways it feels more like the original play by R.S. Allen as it boasts no musical score, and its main focus is the dialogue and interplay between the characters. At the same time, it’s brilliantly shot and directed by Oswald Morris and Sidney Lumet respectively, leading to a compelling if not altogether cheerful cinematic experience. The use of light, shade and close-ups from unusual angles keeps this black and white movie feeling fresh and innovative, despite it having passed its 50th birthday a few years ago.
A masterpiece of writing, performance and cinematography, The Hill is just as relevant today as the day it first premiered. Such a long lasting and insightful creation easily makes this one of the best British films ever released.