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Review of “The Hill” (1965)

Sidney Lumet’s “The Hill” (1965) is a harrowing exploration of the human cost of military service and colonialism, set against the harsh realities of a British military prison during World War II.

Sidney Lumet’s “The Hill,” released in 1965, is a gripping drama set in a British military prison somewhere in North Africa during World War II. This film, celebrated for its intense performances and stark portrayal of military prison life, delves deep into themes of duty, imperialism, and nostalgia, resonating with both historical and cultural undertones.


Set against the harsh backdrop of a desert prison, “The Hill” raises profound questions about the futility of service to one’s nation and the cost of blind obedience. The physical and psychological toll on the incarcerated British soldiers is depicted with unflinching realism. Characters like Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) and Trooper Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) embody the ethos and struggles of military life, highlighting the conflicts between duty, authority, and personal morality. The brutal training and rigid discipline often seem pointless and destructive, mirroring the 1960s societal questioning of authority.

Staff Sergeant Williams’s relentless enforcement of discipline is portrayed through his interactions with Private George Stevens:

“SSgt. Williams: [tauntingly] One of those shy lads, are you, Stevens?… Well?

George Stevens: Well…

SSgt. Williams: [raising his voice] Well?

George Stevens: [somewhat bewildered and disoriented] I was…

SSgt. Williams: [deliberately trying to intimidate] You what? One of those cads who can’t make up his mind whether he’s a boy or a girl?”

This exchange underscores the dehumanising (and often homophobic) nature of the military hierarchy, where personal struggles are mocked rather than understood.

“The Hill raises profound questions about the futility of service to one’s nation and the cost of blind obedience, depicted with unflinching realism.”


The film’s imperial themes are evident in the power dynamics between British officers and prisoners, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of colonial rule. The native population is always present in the background, reinforcing the colonial setting. This is exemplified by various scenes: the Commanding Officer’s lover1, possibly a local prostitute, adds a personal dimension to the imperial relationships; orderlies are shown cleaning the NCOs’ shoes while on parade; one of them serves as a Batman for the RSM; and cabaret belly dancers entertain the troops, highlighting the exoticised and utilitarian view of the local culture. These elements underscore the exploitation and control inherent in colonial rule, highlighting the declining moral authority and legitimacy of the empire, which was increasingly questioned during the post-war period as decolonisation movements gained momentum.

“The film’s imperial themes highlight the exploitation and control inherent in colonial rule, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of British imperialism.”

Treatment of the Other

“The Hill” also shines a light on the treatment of marginalised groups within the military, such as colonial soldiers and homosexuals. Jacko King (Ossie Davis), an African-Caribbean soldier, highlights the racial discrimination and additional hardships faced by colonial troops. Despite their loyalty and service, these soldiers were often subjected to prejudice (and not just from the prison guards) and harsher discipline, reflecting broader racial inequalities of the British Empire.

Ossie Davis as Jacko King and Ian Hendry as SSgt. Williams

In a poignant moment, Jacko confronts the systemic racism:

Jacko King: Unless you’ve got a top-hat, and a bone to put through me nose. That’s the way you white folks think we done dress at home.


SSgt. Williams: Don’t talk back, you different-coloured bastard!

Similarly, Alfred Lynch’s portrayal of Private George Stevens subtly addresses the persecution of gay soldiers. The interactions between Stevens and Williams expose the stigma faced by homosexuals:

George Stevens: I’m married, sir.

SSgt. Williams: Are you now? And who is who in your little partnership?

It’s also implied that Stevens is not suited for punishment and is not considered a proper soldier because he previously worked in the rear rather than on the frontline.

These characters underscore the systemic injustices and lack of equality within the ranks, complicating the film’s depiction of national service and empire.

Alfred Lynch (centre) as George Stevens, from left – right Jack Watson, Sean Connery and Roy Kinnear.

Class Elements

Class divisions are another critical aspect of “The Hill,” adding depth to its critique of military and imperial structures. The film portrays distinct differences between officers and enlisted men, reflecting broader societal inequalities. Officers, often from privileged backgrounds, wield disproportionate power, while lower-ranked soldiers endure their commands. This class disparity mirrors the societal hierarchies of the time, illustrating the struggles of working-class soldiers who face systemic barriers despite their service.

The rigid hierarchy is evident in the everyday interactions within the prison. Officers receive better treatment and live more comfortably, while enlisted men endure harsh conditions. This division is poignantly highlighted when Stevens questions the unjust treatment after his medical with the MO:

George Stevens: We don’t have to be treated like that, do we? I mean…

SSgt. Williams: [screaming] Eyes front!

George Stevens: [he turns back around] We’re not animals.

SSgt. Williams: Haven’t made up my mind whether you’re fish or fowl, Stevens.

These exchanges emphasise how class status influences one’s experience in the military and beyond.

The Medical Officer’s Weakness

Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of the medical officer adds a layer of complexity to the power dynamics within the military prison. Unlike the authoritarian figures of the Regimental Sergeant Major (Harry Andrews) and Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), the medical officer represents a voice of compassion and reason, though ultimately a weak one in the face of the harsh military hierarchy.

The medical officer’s struggle is evident in his interactions with the prisoners and those he supposedly commands. He is depicted as a man torn between his duty to care for the soldiers and the rigid, often brutal, military discipline enforced by the RSM and SSgt. Williams. This conflict is poignantly illustrated in his attempts to advocate for the well-being of the prisoners, only to be undermined by the more powerful officers.

For instance, the medical officer’s concern for the prisoners highlights his compassionate nature:

Medical Officer: These men need proper care and rest. They’re being pushed beyond their limits.

SSgt. Williams: We’re here to discipline, not to pamper them. You’re too soft on them, Doctor.

This dialogue underscores the tension between the medical officer’s ethical obligations and the authoritarian regime of the RSM and SSgt. Williams. Despite his best efforts, the medical officer’s influence is limited. His protests against the brutal treatment of the prisoners often fall on deaf ears, highlighting his impotence (which he accepts) within the power structure.

The RSM and SSgt. Williams epitomise the “pretty bourgeois menace” – outwardly maintaining the appearance of order and discipline, but inwardly perpetuating cruelty and oppression. Their disdain for the medical officer’s more humane approach is palpable:

RSM: This is a military prison, not a hospital ward. If they can stand, they can work.

Medical Officer: You’re pushing them to the brink. This isn’t discipline; it’s inhuman.

RSM: That’s for us to decide, not you.

This exchange vividly captures the clash between the medical officer’s principles and the rigid, often sadistic, enforcement of military discipline by the RSM and SSgt. Williams. The medical officer’s attempts to bring attention to the prisoners’ suffering are consistently overshadowed by the domineering presence of the RSM and SSgt. Williams, who view any sign of leniency as a weakness.

The medical officer’s role, though limited in power, is crucial in highlighting the moral and ethical dilemmas faced within the military structure. His character underscores the theme of individual morality versus institutional authority. His weakness is not just personal but systemic, illustrating how the rigid hierarchy stifles compassion and humanity.

Redgrave’s Medical Officer, serves as a stark contrast to the menacing authority figures of the RSM and SSgt. Williams. His compassionate yet powerless presence underscores the brutal and often inhumane nature of the military prison system. This dynamic adds depth to the film’s exploration of power, duty, and the human cost of maintaining order through oppression.

Class Elements in British World War II Films

British World War II films often highlight class distinctions, using archetypal characters to explore these themes. The “stiff upper lip” of the officer class, exemplified by characters who maintain their composure and leadership under pressure, is a common trope. Films like “The Dam Busters” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” portray officers as embodiments of duty and resilience. In contrast, the “spiv” character, who engages in dubious dealings and black market activities, reflects the war-time opportunist, often shown in films such as “The Third Man.” The soldier who “can’t hack it anymore” represents the psychological toll of war, seen in characters who break under pressure, like in “The Hill” itself or “King & Country.” The trope of noble sacrifice, where characters lay down their lives for the greater good, is prevalent in films like “The Great Escape” and “A Matter of Life and Death,” emphasising themes of heroism and selflessness. These films often juxtapose the privileged officer class against the working-class soldiers, highlighting the different ways they experience and endure the war, reinforcing social hierarchies even in the face of shared adversity.

Lumet’s Filmmaking

Sidney Lumet’s directorial approach in “The Hill” is marked by experimental techniques that heighten the film’s intensity and emotional impact. One of the most striking examples is the scene where Stevens (Alfred Lynch) is forced to wear a gas mask while enduring the grueling task of climbing the hill. Lumet shoots this sequence from Stevens’s perspective, immersing the audience in his disorienting and suffocating experience. The limited, foggy vision and labored breathing heard through the mask create a visceral sense of claustrophobia and distress, highlighting the dehumanising brutality of SSgt Williams, with this event ultimately leading to Stevens cracking.

Lumet’s use of camera angles and movements also contributes to the film’s experimental style. For instance, the director employs high-angle shots to depict the oppressive environment and the prisoners’ sense of entrapment. This technique is used effectively during the scenes on the hill itself, where the camera looks down on the soldiers, making them appear small and powerless against the vast, unforgiving landscape.

The oppressive heat of the North African desert is another critical element that Lumet uses to enhance the film’s realism and emotional intensity. The relentless sun and extreme temperatures are palpable throughout the film, as evidenced by the constant dripping of sweat from the soldiers’ sunburnt bodies and the ever present flies. Lumet captures the heat’s effect through close-up shots of glistening, sweat-drenched faces and the sluggish, labored movements of the men, conveying their physical exhaustion and torment. The scorching environment becomes a character in itself, symbolising the relentless pressure and suffering faced by the prisoners.

Another innovative aspect of Lumet’s filmmaking is his use of stark lighting and shadow to convey the psychological torment of the characters. The harsh, high-contrast lighting accentuates the physical and emotional scars of the prisoners, highlighting their suffering and the relentless nature of their punishment. This is also evident when internal shots are used in the prisoners cell. This visual style aligns with the film’s thematic exploration of authority and subjugation.

In addition to visual experimentation, Lumet’s use of sound plays a crucial role in the film’s immersive experience. The relentless beat of the mess tins being banged, the harsh commands, and the strained breathing of the soldiers under duress all contribute to a soundscape that is both immersive and unsettling. These auditory elements are meticulously crafted to enhance the viewers’ connection to the characters’ plight, making their suffering palpable.

Anti-War Message

Unlike many World War II films that glorify heroism, “The Hill” presents a grim and realistic portrayal of military life, emphasising the brutality and futility of war. This approach aligns it more with works like “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” focusing on harsh realities and personal struggles. Through its unflinching depiction of soldiers’ suffering, the film critiques the nostalgic narratives of war, offering a sobering reflection on its true costs. This is further exemplified in the dialogue between Jacko King and Trooper Roberts, where Jacko laments, “Man, there’s too many people in this army giving the wrong orders. Somebody gotta have the guts to cancel those damn wrong orders,” to which Roberts cynically responds, “There would be no bloody army left if we didn’t obey orders.” This exchange encapsulates the internal conflict and the futility felt by the characters, underscoring the film’s critique of blind obedience and the inherent flaws in military hierarchy.

“The Hill” stands out in its stark realism, contrasting sharply with the adventurous and heroic tones of contemporaneous war films. This realism is embodied in the oppressive heat, the relentless drill, and the psychological torment the characters endure. The film’s anti-war message is clear: war is not glorious but brutal and dehumanising, affecting everyone from the officers to the enlisted men.


While presenting a brutal reality, “The Hill” also evokes a nuanced sense of nostalgia for the British Empire and the wartime era. This nostalgia blends a longing for perceived order and purpose with the harsh realities of military life and colonial oppression. The camaraderie among soldiers and strict military discipline evoke a longing for a bygone era of British dominance, contrasting sharply with the depicted cruelty, challenging romanticised notions of the past.

This nostalgic element is particularly complex, as it acknowledges the appeal of a time when Britain had global influence (which was waning) while simultaneously critiquing the brutal methods used to maintain that influence. The soldiers’ shared suffering evoke a sense of unity and purpose that is both admirable and tragic. The film encourages viewers to reflect on the cost of that unity and the price of maintaining an empire.

RSM: What kind of soldier are you?

Trooper Roberts: I’m a live one unless Williams as other plans for me.

RSM: Discipline, the army is run on discipline.

Trooper Roberts: I’m a regular soldier because I couldn’t get a bloody job in civy street. But I was a good toy, a clockwork soldier, just like you are, you throw an order at me and I could pick it up like a dog picks up a bone. (Stevens falls to the floor)

RSM: On your feet, and you listen.

Trooper Roberts: No, you listen…..

RSM: Treason, you are talking treason, get on your feet.

Trooper Roberts: Ok treason, that’s para 531, section 7….I can’t do things that make no sense anymore, but you live by the book, but its out of date, it’s stupid and it’s out of date.

RSM: Oh you quit eh, glass house permanent for the rest of the war.

Trooper Roberts: Right.

RSM: You, bloody sign away our empire?

Trooper Roberts: Yes, give it to Jacko so he can use it.

RSM: Niggers, they couldn’t run a knocking shop.

This interaction highlights the tension between the outdated ideals of the British Empire and the harsh realities faced by the soldiers. The conversation begins with the RSM questioning Roberts’ commitment to being a soldier, to which Roberts bitterly responds, “I’m a live one unless Williams has other plans for me.” This sets the stage for Roberts’ disillusionment with the rigid discipline and blind obedience demanded by the military. When Roberts confesses, “I’m a regular soldier because I couldn’t get a bloody job in civvy street,” he exposes the socioeconomic pressures that forced many into military service, revealing the lack of opportunities outside the army.

As the dialogue progresses, Roberts’ critique becomes sharper: “I was a good toy, a clockwork soldier, just like you are. You throw an order at me, and I could pick it up like a dog picks up a bone.” This metaphor of being a “clockwork soldier” underscores the dehumanising effect of the military’s demand for unquestioning obedience, which Roberts can no longer tolerate. His fall to the floor symbolises the breaking point, both physically (he has a damaged foot from a punishment beating from Williams) and mentally, against the oppressive system.

The RSM’s response, “Discipline, the army is run on discipline,” reflects a nostalgic adherence to traditional military values that Roberts challenges as outdated and nonsensical: “I can’t do things that make no sense anymore, but you live by the book, but it’s out of date, it’s stupid and it’s out of date.” This clash of perspectives highlights the generational and ideological rift between the soldiers and their superiors, who cling to a bygone era’s principles.

The exchange takes a darker turn when the RSM accuses Roberts of treason, to which Roberts provocatively responds, acknowledging the absurdity of the rigid military code: “Okay, treason, that’s para 531, section 7.” The RSM’s final outburst, “You bloody sign away our empire?” followed by the racist comment, “Niggers, they couldn’t run a knocking shop,” starkly reveals the underlying racist and imperialist attitudes that persist within the military hierarchy. Roberts’ retort, “Yes, give it to Jacko so he can use it,” suggests a radical shift in power and a condemnation of the colonial mindset.

This dialogue encapsulates the film’s critical examination of the British Empire’s legacy, exposing the systemic racism and the nostalgia for an imperial past that no longer holds relevance. Lumet’s portrayal of these issues through such raw and confrontational dialogue forces the audience to confront the moral and ethical decay inherent in the imperial and military structures.


“The Hill” intertwines themes of service, empire, class, and nostalgia to create a compelling and thought-provoking narrative. Through intense performances and stark realism, the film offers a poignant reflection on soldiers’ sacrifices, the moral complexities of colonial rule, and the bittersweet longing for a lost era. The inclusion of characters like Jacko King and Private Stevens, and the exploration of marginalised groups, adds depth to its social critique. Sidney Lumet’s vision brings these themes to life, making “The Hill” a timeless exploration of power, duty, and humanity.

The film’s legacy endures, resonating with modern audiences as it continues to provoke discussions on military service, colonial history, class disparities, and national identity. By highlighting the personal and systemic struggles within the military hierarchy, “The Hill” remains a powerful reminder of the human cost of war and empire.

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  1. The only time we really see the CO is when he leaves his lover’s room in the morning to head back to camp. ↩︎

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