Jacko King: “Somebody got to have the guts to cancel some of them wrong orders.”
Roberts: “There’d be no bloody army left if we didn’t obey orders!”
The Hill opens with an elaborately extended tracking shot floating away from a soldier collapsing on the summit of the hill and being carried off to the infirmary. The shot takes in the entirety of the fort and the surrounding area, a vast, flat plane of which the hill is the centre.
The most immediate precursor to the image of the prisoner watching the sand drain out of his bag and then collapse is Camus’ use of the Myth of Sisyphus.
As a punishment for having imprisoned Death Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again and come to rest exactly where it started. For Camus this is the central absurdity of existence: endless, fruitless labour.
The hill is the means by which Connery’s “broken” Sgt. Major Roberts is to be reshaped. In his refusal to send his men to certain death and his deeper inability to make sense of the current situation, the rules of war and the overhang of Victorian institutions and ideologies into the mid twentieth century Roberts is an Absurdist hero of a sort, the man who follows one of Camus injunctions, to revolt. Roberts certainly complies with the archetype of the rebel, terse, ironic, intransigent, individualistic.
But The Hill, which on one level appears to be a critique of militarism and British institutions such as the Army and the Empire, is less indebted to Camus and The Absurd than first appears. The Hill’s messages is deeply ambiguous, and the ambiguity surrounds the contestation among the characters with regard to the hill itself. What’s certain is that the hill is central to everything that occurs in the film and is at the forefront of all the character’s minds, as a threat, a tool or a promise. In a sense the central character of The Hill is the hill itself, and in a film replete with point of view shots the hill also has one, watching silently as the latest set of prisoners are drilled around its base by Staff Sgt Williams.
This is, if you like, a hill with two sides, representing discipline and punishment, but also organisation and collaboration: death but also transformation. Imperious and immutable, the hill is man himself in his purest expression, the symbol of the basic rejection necessary for any kind of conscious or collective existence to come into being. This is the real conceived not as a void at the core of things, or as a cut, but as an expression of the will. In The Hill, man, both individually and collectively evolves through the rigour of reshaping himself. Existence is predicated on labour, the question is how and why the labour is performed.
The British psychoanalyst Darian Leader has identified the message that the child receives from the parent as it begins to falteringly achieve motor skills, reaching out its hand to grasp at an object, trying to take its first steps. The message, he claims is : “live!” Live could be usefully replaced by a host of other commands, to varying degrees: “Strive” “Grow” “Develop” “Overcome”. But living is unthinkinable, unattainable without this basic call. Whether this call is/should be more in the nature of a command or an appeal may be the basic modality of the passage through from the explicit paternalism of pre-war society to the increasingly liberal post war world. And this modality is the core of the argument in The Hill, the ways the different interest groups and power relations compete around and are shaped by their relationship to the hill.
It’s easy to imagine a contempory Hollywood remake in which Sgt Major Roberts blows the hill up in a liberal, feelgood spectacle, to whoops from the liberated prisoners, bonded together now, having overcome their mutual suspicion and animosity, enriched by each others’ difference. Ding-dong, the hill is dead. But the hill cannot die .
The tagline for the film is “They went up it as men! They came down it as animals!” Yet the reverse is true. Primal, implacable, indestructible, the Hill is the thing without which man would still be wallowing in the slime. A hill is what each man must construct in order to free himself from his animality, the corollary of the voice of the other calling out “live!”
Between the parent crouched in expectation and the child struggling to reach them stands the hill.
Connery may be the star of the Hill and the character with whom the audience is supposed to empathise, but the film is comprehensively stolen from him by a trio of superb British character actors, Ian Bannen (who also steals the film from Connery again when they next meet in The Offence) Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.
Andrews plays R.S.M Wilson the de facto ruler of the Glasshouse (the Commandant is a bloated upper-class sybarite who spends his time whoring and having the wool pulled over his eyes.) It’s one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid. Wilson represents the Empire, the pre Second World War world of hierarchy and discipline, the belief in Queen and Country and Duty, the man whose job it is to iron out deviations in the smooth daily running of the British war machine by running insubordinate or treasonous soldiers over The Hill. In a sense Wilson is The Hill, monolithic in his certainty and his unerring attachment to the rules, physically and mentally almost superhumanly robust. In a superb two-shot sequence after a suicidal drinking competition in the Officers’ mess we see Wilson and Stevens in separate showers. Wilson is scrubbing himself vigorously, whistling, brimming over with vim and gusto. Stevens stands wretched, head down and hung over, the water drumming on his back. Wilson, like the Hill can not be defeated or beaten down, he is of a different order, he has the right stuff, the mettle.
The attacks on Wilson, on the Empire, on the State, come from all sides, from within, through the ambitious Stevens, the liberal Harris, the weak and uncertain Medical Officer and without, through Roberts, the man who has lost faith in the pre-War world and has set out to destroy it and his cellmates, an array of those post-War figures who will begin to chip away at the old confidence and the sense of a natural order, the proles, the spivs, the queers, the uppity “darkies” who think they have the same rights as true-born Englishman. In these respects the Hill is really a film about the Sixties rather than a portrayal of the 1940s, a period in which the aristocratic old-order, The Establishment, was being eaten away by the democratic popular forces and meritocratic upsurges of a modern age it simply could not understand.
In one of The Hill's key sequences the prisoners begin a revolt over the death of their fellow inmate, Stevens, spilling out of their cells and standing chanting his name on the gangways, poised on edge of revolt, of a riot.
Lumet is often criticized (with much justice) for his over casual approach to mise-en-scene but here, as in the rest of The Hill, the camerawork and framings, the use of extreme low and high angles that alternately turn Wilson from a towering figure, a colossus around whose base the camera slowly rotates, to the implacable centre of the crowded, geometric intricacy of the deep focus crane shots keep his domination of the frame, and the Glasshouse itself intact (and align him even more fully with the hill, he is both the base and apex of an invisible hill, the hill of his absolute authority, standing there in the Glasshouse itself.)
Wilson goes about quelling the incipient riot with an exemplary combination of common-sense, humour, camaraderie, bribery, paternalism, quiet menace, enormous charm. At one point he threatens to round up the ring-leaders if the men won’t go back to their cells.
“Who are the ringleaders?” A voice calls down cockily, sure that Wilson doesn’t know and is merely bluffing.
The camera cuts in close and low on Wilson’s face as he somehow simultaneously barks and drawls his response, his head filling the screen.
“Every fifth man!”
Here is power in a flash, nakedly arbitrary, breaking up the fragile solidarity, exposing your fear that the mob cannot hide you, that you may be the one to suffer the full penalty, unfairly. You weren’t a ringleader yet you might be punished as such. Here is power, necessarily revealing itself, to disrupt and discompose before the reasonable discourse is brought in again to soothe and cajole.
“Every fifth man!”
A ripple runs through the crowd, the sound of something cohesive breaking up, of a focused energy dispersing, the shift from the collective to the particular. The wind goes out of the prisoner’s sails, the spirit, the spell, has been broken.
This is how they do it, this is how they’ve always done it.
First it’s “every fifth man!” Then it’s extra rations for tea if you all go quietly back to your cells.