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hell-is-for-heroes-movie-poster-1962-1020435451

Filmmaking is a lot like cooking, if you think about it: give five different chefs the exact same ingredients and you’re likely to come up with five very different dishes. Ditto for filmmaking: give five different filmmakers the exact same tropes, conventions, themes and scenarios and you’re going to end up with five very different films. Case in point: action auteur Don Siegel’s Hell Is For Heroes (1962). On the outside, the film looks much like many other World War II-set action films: big cast of well-known actors…intense front-line action sequences…dramatic interplay between the soldiers. Digging deeper, however, it’s easy to see that this particular war film bears more than a passing resemblance to similarly dark, paranoid films in Siegel’s canon such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Killers (1964). The result? A tense, nihilistic and constantly odd study in hubris, obsession and heroism, courtesy of the guy who would, one day, gift us with Dirty Harry (1971).

We jump right into the action on the front-line of the Allied offensive, in France, circa 1944. A small American squadron, led by Sgts. Larkin (Harry Guardino) and Pike (Fess Parker aka TV’s Daniel Boone), has been charged with holding the line against the German offensive. As the squad, which includes motor-mouthed Pvt. Corby (actor/singer Bobby Darin), laconic Cpl. Henshaw (James Coburn), Pvt. Kolinsky (Mike Kellin) and Pvt. Cumberly (Bill Mullikin), celebrate their upcoming return home, they receive a new member: Pvt. Reese (Steve McQueen). Reese is a sullen, surly, standoffish badass who seems to have a past with Sgt. Pike and a problem with the bottle.

While Reese lugs several steamer trunks’ worth of emotional baggage with him, his appearance also foretells a bit of bad luck for the squad: not only aren’t they going to get to go home but military brass has decreed that the squad be split, stretching the already thin crew to a breaking point. While Pike takes most of the men further down the way, Larkin and his tiny six-man crew are charged with holding the line all on their lonesome.

The problem, of course, is that a far larger German force is camped out just over the rise, patiently waiting to bomb the ever-loving shit out of the stragglers. As the extremely unpleasant but eminently capable Reese butts heads with Larkin over their next course of action, the rest of the team are caught in the crosshairs. When Reese comes up with a brazen, impossibly dangerous plan to take out the nearby German pillbox, however, he sets in motion a series of events that will test the squads loyalty, their resilience and their very wills to survive.

Despite its familiar trappings, Hell Is For Heroes is a decidedly odd duck. For one thing, the evocative black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Harold Lipstein) frequently calls to mind film noir and German Expressionist filmmaking: full of hard, deep shadows and an overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere, there’s something intensely unsettling about the film, even during its lighter moments. There’s also the film’s rigid, almost stage-bound sense of blocking: combined with the sharp dialogue (legendary screenwriter Robert Pirosh wrote the film, along with Richard Carr), the movie often feels like a stage play, although this ends up working to its benefit, heightening the eerie sense of unreality.

Siegel, as expected, is a deft hand with the action sequences (the film’s final 20 minutes are one long, sustained battle that’s a masterpiece of chaos and carnage) but the connecting tissue is where the film really stands out: the midpoint sequence, which consists of the G.I.s setting up an elaborate “early warning system,” is almost ludicrously detailed and leisurely paced, yet still manages to be impossibly tense and pulse-pounding. The human-level drama is even better: McQueen’s thoroughly unlikable Reese swings wildly at any and everyone around him and the audience soaks up the benefit.

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to recall another performance of McQueen’s that is quite this unpleasant and cold: even the flinty-eyed Frank Bullitt had a basic degree of humanity that seems to be lacking in Reese. Obsessed with proving himself right, completely dismissive of authority, misogynistic and arguably misanthropic, Pvt. Reese is, perhaps, one of the single most unqualified heroes in the history of the biz. Look closer, however, and McQueen’s world-weary eyes almost (almost) tell a different story. His latter-half heroism isn’t so much a last-minute Hail Mary as it is the natural culmination of his inherent stubbornness: Reese is more than willing to die to prove himself right.

While McQueen is a reliable marquee draw, the rest of the Hell Is For Heroes cast is a veritable embarrassment of riches. Guardino and Parker are both excellent as the guys (grudgingly) in charge, with Parker possessing the absolutely perfect blend of authority and down-home humility. Nick Adams turns in a slightly goofy, if likable, performance as the tag-along Polish soldier, Homer, while Coburn is great as the reserved Henshaw: you know a film has a fantastic cast when an actor of Coburn’s stature is, effectively, relegated to second-tier status but he brings an easy warmth to the proceedings that are completely expected and always appreciated.

The two big surprises, however, end up coming on the lighter side of things: Bobby Darin’s conniving, perpetually scheming Pvt. Corby is a classic character and Darin plays him with complete gusto. At times approximating Lou Costello, Darin provides much of the film’s comic relief and never wears out his welcome, high praise for the type of character that normally gets under your skin, fast. The other surprise is Bob Newhart’s delightful performance as the bumbling, over-his-head Pvt. Driscoll. From his entrance (crashing into a tree with his jeep) all the way to the show-stopper where he commandeers a German phone line and proceeds to feed the enemy fake intel, Newhart is sheer perfection, his timing pitch-perfect and his hang-dog, malleable face so essential to the film’s (occasionally) deeply-set sense of humanity. Driscoll often reminded me of the similarly bumbling Radio O’Reilly, making me wonder if this might have served as inspiration for Gary Burghoff’s iconic character: the mind practically boggles!

Ultimately, Hell Is For Heroes is a continually surprising film, a feat which certainly stands as one of its greatest assets. From the opening all the way through to the purposefully ambiguous finale, which skips the expected emotional payoff and gives us something decidedly more open-ended, Siegel’s film defies conventions and arrives at an altogether more interesting destination. Less interested with easy definitions of “heroism” than he is with the reality of the situation (depending on the angle you view it from, Reese’s actions could easily fall under the umbrella of “insubordination,” “insanity” or even “manslaughter”), Siegel turns in another complex, nuanced and disturbing examination of the evil that men do, even when they do it in service of “the greater good.” In other words, just another day at the office for one of the all-time greats.

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