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Hell Is For Heroes – Don Siegel – 1962

Posted in 60's with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by bookofdread

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Don Siegel’s Hell is For Heroes is a dramatic retelling of the events that transpired on the Siegfried German line in WWII. A small squad of soldiers is required to maintain a stretch of the line despite having few men and fewer resources. The film is lean, muscular little beast, with a crackerjack cast, very nice black and white photography, and a stirring plot.

The film opens with dramatic stills of soldiers in the trenches when the title, “Hell Is For Heroes” explodes onto the screen. I have to note the music here, and it’s the last time I’ll do so. It’s very dated, action-suspense music, and I feel it gives little effect to the film, and often I was distracted by it’s bombastic presence.

It’s 1944. France, somewhere near the Siegfired line, 2nd squad waits for the call to go home. We meet these characters one by one, each making a point of empathy. I particularly like James Coburn’s mechanic type. This film is more about plot than character, so each of these guys is really just a type: the funny guy, the guy who fixes things, the loner, and the existentialist. We meet the squad and their commander tells them to get ready, they’re going home. Only, they’re not going home. They’re going back to the line.

Steve McQueen is Reese, a previously court marshaled dickhead who’s a great soldier. He’s a bit cracked though. McQueen is serviceable here, giving seething looks but never coming across as inherently noble, as he should.

The film moves quickly and once at the line, most of the battalion leaves in the dead of night, leaving 2nd squad, six men, to defend a huge stretch of land and not give away their depleted forces. The second act of this film is much character building and not too much action. However after days of being pinned down and with the commanding officer killed, Reese decides that they have to take the pillbox or die. They can’t afford to wait for reinforcements.

This failed attempt ends up with a man dead. Reese retreats. When the CO of the battalion returns and asks Reese if he was right to attempt to take the pillbox, McQueen replies, conflicted, “Oh, who the hell knows?” In this one moment the film drives its point home. War can make even the most capable man rash and prone to bad even fatal decisions.

The 1st squad makes good on their promise to return. They storm the hill and attempt to take the pillbox. Reese sees men get shot and James Coburn covers Reese with a flamethrower so that Reese can run a charge pack up and throw it in the bunker. He does, but it is thrown out again. Standing Reese is shot, but he runs back at the bunker and tackles the explosive into the open portal. The bunker blows to smithereens. Roll credits.

This film is a tough mans film peppered with moments of psychosis and sentimentality. It’s a very low concept production and until the third act it appears as if it could be taking place anywhere.  There are few misplaced characters that add some un-needed comic effect. The Polish kid who wants to come fight with these GI’s is pretty annoying and though his character should serve as a vessel of perspective for a devastated nation, he comes off as goofy and bumbling. Furthermore, Bob Newhart, though funny, is a constant distraction.

Hell is for Heroes and for Heroes there can be only Hell.

The ending of the film is very abrupt. I read that this was because the film ran out of money, however, I find it to be an exciting punctuation mark on a sometimes lugubrious film. The ending effectively makes the film, and I recommend it to anyone who loves war films, Bobby Darin or Fess Parker.

 

 

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