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World War II, in a British disciplinary camp located in the Libyan desert, prisoners are persecuted by Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), who made them climb again and again, under the heavy sun, an artificial hill built right in the middle of the camp. Harris (Ian Bannen) is a more human and compassionate guard, but the chief, R.S.M. Wilson (Harry Andrews), refuses to disown his subordinate Williams. One day, five new prisoners arrive. Each of them will deal in a different way with the authority and Williams' ferocity.Written by
This is certifiably not your average war movie. No battle scenes, no martial music, only one flag raised. Instead, the hill in question is repeatedly taken, relinquished and surrendered to in a battle of wills at a British military "correctional facility," presumably in North Africa or perhaps in the Middle East, during the Second World War.
If you've not seen this you would be correct to think it "a Sean Connery film." If it's not his most nuanced performance it at least permits him to display a convincing vulnerability, no mean feat in uniform. You don't readily believe his character's explanation for being there or his instant antagonism but after the first 15 or so minutes that will no longer matter. You do learn how he sounds when he gets truly angry...
But make no mistake, this film belongs to Harry Andrews and Ian Hendry. Andrews's nearly single-handed quelling of a prisoners' mutiny is tour-de-force. Hendry is unrecognizable, physically and in character, the instant he dons his "Staff" cap. Without these two you lose track of the others, Connery's cell-mates (Davis, Kinnear, Ryder and Watson), the other "screws" (Bannen and Bird among them), and the Medical Officer (Sir Michael Redgrave, unsettled and unsettling).
Others earn special praise. Ian Bannen, another "Staff" who manages to retain his wits while challenging you to get your head around his character. Ossie Davis convinces as a West Indian whose self-proclaimed resignation from military service is at the end not what it seems. And Alfred Ryder, who I simply would not have recognized from his performance had I not lately seen him play someone very different with Connery in On the Fiddle aka Operation Snafu.
Sidney Lumet's direction fits the actor's director, focused and as spare and stark as the scenery. The "fourth wall" is consistently battered, and if you don't like being shouted at this film is not for you. Oswald Morris's photography also fits, though some shots contribute to a sense of both vertigo and claustrophobia, at times simultaneously. Intentional, perhaps.
But it all works, and the visual and mental imagery burns even in black-and-white.
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