Tuesday, February 17, 2015

CRACKER? Hell is for Heroes (1962)

                “Hell is for Heroes” is an anti-war movie released in 1962.  The movie originated with writer Robert Pirosh who had already scored with “Battleground”.  Pirosh was a veteran of WWII.  He had been a Master Sergeant in the 35th Division and served in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was awarded the Bronze Star.  The incident in the movie was supposedly based on his experiences.  Unfortunately his war experiences did not prepare him for working with Steve McQueen.  McQueen arrived on set unhappy and stayed that way.  He did not want to be in the film and made it clear to everyone involved.  It was not method acting.  He was a huge pain in the ass and Pirosh (who was supposed to direct) walked out on the production.  Don Siegel (his only war movie) replaced him which was probably for the better as he was able to stand up to the obstinate star.  The filming was an unpleasant experience for all involved with his fellow actors being nettled by McQueen’s surliness.  Siegel put his stamp on the movie by insisting that it be bleakly anti-war.  He took all of Pirosh’s black comedy out, but the studio forced him to include the Bob Newhart telephone monologue. 

"So my dumbass agent gets me stuck in this stupid
movie and I'm gonna make everyone pay."
                The movie is set near the Siegried Line in 1944.  A squad is sent to an outpost to deceive the Germans into remaining on the defensive.  It is your typical heterogeneous unit of potential survivors.  Thrown into the mix is the recent replacement named Reese (McQueen).  He comes with a chip on his shoulder the size of a log.  He was recently demoted and is surly about it.  It seems he is a decorated warrior who “cracks up when the pressure is off.” On the other hand, his comrades are not happy with the advent of new pressure.  Their mission is to maintain a stretch of the front line and make the more numerous Germans across no man’s land think they are a much larger unit.  This involves stunts like rigging up a jeep to sound like a tank.  When they discover a listening device in their bunker, this gives Newhart (who plays clerk PFC Driscoll) to do one of his popular telephone routines pretending they have a much larger force.  This is one of the most bizarre moments in war movie history. 

                The attempts at deception are only semi-successful because the Germans raid during the night and let the whittling begin.  We started with eight and won’t end up with eight.  For some faux tactical reason, Reese convinces the men that tit deserves tat.  He leads a raid on a German pill box.  This involves a suspenseful crawl through a mine-field (suicidally using their hands instead of knives to probe).  Reese sets himself up for redemption in the climactic assault against the Siegfried Line.

"Is there a stand-up comedian down there who
can do a routine to trick the Germans?"
                “Hell is for Heroes” has developed a cultish reputation over the years.  This is in spite (or due to) its limited budget and Siegel’s direction.  The movie was filmed mainly at the studio and they should have been thankful they did not have to film in Siegel’s back yard since the suits were very stingy.  The cast was constantly angry about things like malfunctioning weapons.  The movie ends abruptly because they ran out of film!  The obstacles overcome (including McQueen) adds to the mystique of the movie.

                The cast is first rate with James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, and Nick Adams.  McQueen dominates as was his wont, but he gives a remarkable performance as one of the iconic anti-heroes.  Of course, you could argue that he was not actually acting.  He was acting out.  He certainly has the thousand yard stare down pat.  It was Newhart’s debut and his phone routine, while hilarious, is out of place in this particular film.  Unfortunately, other than the Reese character, there is little character cdevelopment. 

"Listen buddy, I won the pool to kill McQueen."
                The movie has a made-for-television feel to it -  specifically, “Combat!” (which Pirosh went on to create).  The movie even has music straight out of that TV series.  The dialogue is sparse with little of the soldier banter you would expect from men awaiting possible death.  The action is well-staged with some good combat scenes.  At one point Reese is fighting hand-to-hand and throws his helmet at a German.  Most of the action takes place at night which adds to the vibe.  This was not a Siegel touch, but instead was called for because of the brutally hot daytime temperatures.  The cinematography has some bells and whistles and the sound is good for a low budget effort.  The set is nice with authentic looking dragon’s teeth and fox holes.  The weapons are fine with Reese using a grease gun (a very cranky M3), but not carrying the correct ammunition.  The technical adviser must have slept through most of the production.

                Pirosh’s script was reworked a bit and ended up being Siegel-worthy bleak.  It does not avoid clichés as it has a fallen hero who finds redemption.  The old heel to hero arc.  It is firmly in the “who will survive?” subgenre.  It lacks in realism as some of the deceptions are borderline silly, but it’s hard to get upset with a movie that does not care what you think about Newhart doing one of his comedy routines.
               Does it crack my 100 Best Movies list?  I doubt it, but it is a must-see for war movie buffs 

GRADE  =  B- 

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