The Hill is quite a few things–Sidney Lumet doing another stage adaptation, almost in real time, a la Twelve Angry Men, a prison drama, a race drama, a military drama, and an example of a decent Sean Connery performance (not a particularly good one, but a decent one). It’s incredibly contrived–desert British prison camp in World War II, new prison officer comes along the same day Connery arrives along with four other men, who aren’t split up. The guards heckle Ossie Davis for being black, get in to with Connery because he struck a superior officer, and tease the soldier who wants to go home to his wife. The other two new prisoners are just there to hang around. Over the present action of the film, a day and a half, one prisoner dies and the entire power structure gets threatened by all these elements brought conveniently together for a hundred and twenty minutes.
A good deal of the film is deceptively good, until it becomes clear the present action is going to take place in that practical real time. Lumet’s direction is fantastic as well. Starting the film, I thought how it’d be funny if it were Connery cast against leading man-type… unfortunately, it is and the film quickly descends into a common (relatively) innocent prisoner against sadistic prison guard, without doing anything more interesting than setting it in the British army.
All of the performances are quite good (except Michael Redgrave, who spends his screen-time looking confused)–Harry Andrews in particular–but when the film goes off track, fitting so many consequential events into such a short period, it’s impossible for it to recover. The screenwriter (who adapted his own play) doesn’t just have a dumb plot, he has incredibly careless dialogue–one of the men says goodbye to Connery and says something about suggesting they’d known each other for a long time… instead of thirty-eight hours or so.
Ossie Davis is the best in the film; he gets the most interesting action after a while–once the script turns Andrews into a caricature, after almost promising he was going to remain a character throughout–and many of Davis’s scenes are a joy to watch. Because Connery is visibly against type, intentionally against type, he doesn’t really have a character to work with. He needs to remain mysterious, to draw attention to himself for not being a leading man. The result is his performance not being as good as it could have been. He has some real potential in a few scenes, but again, the script’s more concerned with being a momentous condemnation of the British military mindset.
By the end, almost everything interesting has been drained from The Hill. Characters are presented, at the beginning, as being this sort of person or that and then later flipped around to get the film to the necessary conclusion. They don’t change, they aren’t revealed to have been deceiving everyone. They just flip. It’s the filmmakers are deceiving the audience, packaging their film as a social message as opposed to a narrative.
I do appreciate the film is without any musical score, but it’s not a surprise (I noticed at one point there should be one and there wasn’t), as Lumet doesn’t do anything wrong the entire time. Except, of course, not getting a decent rewrite on the script.
Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Ray Rigby, based on a play by Rigby and R.S. Allen; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Thelma Connell; produced by Kenneth Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Sean Connery (Joe Roberts), Harry Andrews (R.S.M. Bert Wilson), Ian Bannen (Harris), Alfred Lynch (George Stevens), Ossie Davis (Jacko King), Roy Kinnear (Monty Bartlett), Jack Watson (Jock McGrath), Ian Hendry (Williams) and Michael Redgrave (M.O.).