The Hill (1965) – 50th Anniversary Tribute – Ian Hendry + Sean Connery + Harry Andrews + Ian Bannen
1965 was a memorable year for Ian Hendry, with the release of two very significant performances on the silver screen – Repulsion and The Hill.
The Hill (1965)
The Hill is a 1965 film directed by Sidney Lumet, set in a British army prison in North Africa in the Second World War. It stars Sean Connery, Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Ossie Davis, Alfred Lynch, Roy Kinnear, Neil McCarthy and Michael Redgrave.
When discussing The Hill, Woody Allen commented, ‘I certainly consider it one of the greatest American films.’
Some interesting comments from Hal Erikson:
‘The Hill was unfairly subjected to ridicule by the more obtuse “critics” of 1965 who harped on the fact that it starred Sean Connery and, unlike Connery’s Bond pictures, had no women in it. Bypassing these cretinous comments, it must be noted that The Hill is an above-the-norm entry in the “military prison” genre…….The Hill should never be seen in any form other than its dusty, parched original black-and-white; the currently available colorized version is a crime against humanity.’
Set in a North African detention camp for court-martialed British soldiers, Sidney Lumet directed this film based on Ray Rigby’s autobiographical play about his own experiences of imprisonment during World War II.
Sean Connery was cast as Warrant Officer Joe Roberts, a rebellious prisoner who had previously refused to order his men into a suicide attack and was now being severely disciplined by the sadistic camp staff sergeant (Ian Hendry). In addition to daily verbal abuse, the main punishment consists of being forced to repeatedly climb a man-made mount of sand and rock under the boiling sun while toting a full backpack.
Harry Andrews is riveting, as the commandant who fails to realize his power is being undermined by his sadistic sergeant.
Ian Hendry plays the cruel Staff Sergeant Williams – new to the prison – and his ambition is matched only by his sadistic treatment of the prisoners; he seeks to use their suffering as means for promotion. A powerful performance which was somehow overlooked when the awards season came around.
Picture: Ian Hendry on set with his daughter Sally Hendry – with Ian Bannen (right) and Neil McCarthy (left)
In assessing the level of Ian Hendry’s performance in The Hill, it is important to have an understanding of acting as well as the military. Simon Furness succinctly and beautifully summed up his appreciation of Ian’s acting with this comment:
‘I’m an actor and my father was a soldier so it was ‘The Hill’ in which he struck me so forcibly. I find most modern actors’ attempts to portray military men negligible – but Ian’s performance as Williams has never been bettered. My father and I both knew men like that in the Army – he exhibited a suppressed violence and a near-erotic glee in the misfortunes of his charges in that film. Unforgettable.’
The only two notable awards were for Oswald Morris who deservedly won a BAFTA for Best British Cinematography and Ray Rigby who won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival (both in 1965).
Between the release of Goldfinger (1964) and the making of Thunderball (1965), Sean Connery, the screen’s first James Bond, decided to take a break from playing the suave secret agent and tackle a more challenging role. Not only was he concerned that he was being typecast for the rest of his career but he was also worried that critics would never take him seriously as an actor. As a result, Connery leaped at the opportunity to appear in The Hill (1965), a stark, realistic wartime drama from director Sidney Lumet which couldn’t have been more removed from the posh, jet-set settings and fantastical situations of the 007 series.
Picture: Sean Connery takes a break from filming The Hill (1965)
Connery discussed The Hill as part of a lengthy interview for the November 1965 issue of Playboy Magazine. Extract below:
PLAYBOY: How about The Hill? Are you pleased with your performance in it?
CONNERY: That’s the first time, truly, since the Bond films that I’ve had any time to prepare, to get all the ins and outs of what I was going to do worked out with the director and producer in advance, to find out if we were all on the same track. Then we went off like Gang Busters and shot the film under time, and it was exciting all the way down the line. Even before being shown, The Hill has succeeded for me, because I was concerned and fully involved in the making of it. The next stage is how it is exploited and received, and that I have absolutely no control over; by the time The Hill is out, I shall be involved in Thunderball. You get detached; a film is like a young bird that has flown from its nest; once out, it’s up to the bird to fly around or to fall on its arse. When Woman of Straw was shot down, I wasn’t entirely surprised. But whatever happens to The Hill, it will not detract from what I think about it.
PLAYBOY: Do you think your box-office drawing power as Bond had anything to do with your getting the lead in The Hill?
CONNERY: It had everything to do with it, of course. As a matter of fact, it might not have been made at all except for Bond. It’s a marvellous movie with lots of good actors in it, but it’s the sort of film that might have been considered a non-commercial art-house property without my name on it. This gave the producers financial freedom, a rein to make it. Thanks to Bond, I find myself now in a bracket with just a few other actors and actresses who, if they put their names to a contract, it means the finances will come in.
Sean Connery used his star power as James Bond to promote Sidney Lumet’s new film – The Hill.
Picture: Sean Connery at the Cannes Film Festival (1965)
Director – Sidney Lumet
Picture: Sidney Lumet has a break from directing The Hill – for a haircut!
The Hill was an acclaimed work of Neorealism from director Sidney Lumet. The choice of black-and-white photography (for which Oswald Morris also deserves credit) – often cleverly combined with wide-angle lens to distort facial expressions/ emotions in close-ups – was well suited to conveying desert location and the struggle of the prisoners as they trudge “the hill” in the blistering heat. The absence of music merely reinforces the stark subject matter of the film.
The grueling physical conditions displayed on the screen in The Hill were just as taxing off screen to the cast and crew but Connery enjoyed every minute of the shoot which included five weeks on location in Almeria, Spain, and two weeks for interiors at the Metro Studios in Borehamwood.
The set was was constructed in the Dunas de las Amoladeras – near Cortijo Hoya Altica – in the Almeria region of Spain.
Pictures above: Prison camp constructed here in Dunas de las Amoladeras (near Cortijo Hoya Altica). These pictures appear to have been taken shortly after the film-set was part-demolished. The light-coloured walls of the Prison Fort in the distance have been reduced in height but still give an indication of the site and extent of the fort.
Picture: Compound of the Military Fort – The Hill (1965)
Picture: Military Prison Fort constructed for The Hill
When the filming was complete, a Portuguese production company making a comedy spoof of Lawrence of Arabia – called Toto d”Arabia – decided the set would be an ideal location for “Shamara”, a town in the Desert of Arabia!
Picture: The Military Fort was used again in Toto d’Arabia
For die-hard film-buffs, Toto d’Arabia can be watched here!
The punishment hill was constructed within the grounds of the fort, utilizing 10,000 feet of imported tubular steel and more than 60 tons of stone and timber. The temperatures rarely fell below 115 degrees and despite the 2,000 gallons of pure water that were shipped in for the crew, almost everyone succumbed to dysentery during the shoot.
Desert of Tabernas
Only a few scenes have been shot in the Desert of Tabernas, precisely in the Rambla de Tabernas. The main Rambla around Tabernas:
Picture: Ossie Davis in the Rambla de Tabernas, 1965 – Comparison photo April 2011
Pictures above: On the way into the Military Prison – then and now – Rambla de Tabernas.
In Michael Feeney Callan’s biography, Sean Connery, cast member Ian Bannen recalled:
“We were in the bloody desert and the water and food were ghastly. It’d be hard to find words to describe the location. Tough, that’s all I can say. Real tough….Sean was fine at the start – despite the fact the location was as smelly as Aberdeen on a hot day. Fishy, that’s what it was like, fish-smelling. Awful.”
The desert of Tabernas, a few miles from Cabo de Gata Natural Park, still contains remnants of old film sets used in many western films. Production of films here began in the late 50s, with the 60s and 70s seeing the highest number of filmed movies – before a general decline in the 80s.
Tabernas rose to stardom thanks to director Sergio Leone who filmed the mythical dollar trilogy starring Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and his classic film Once Upon a Time in the West with Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale. Other classic films which used Tavernas as a location include Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra,, Conan the Barbarian and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
For a list of films made in Almeria, Spain click here.
Poster and Promotion
Picture: The hat worn by Ian Hendry in The Hill (1965)
A few years later Ian gave me the hat he had worn – obviously a treasured memento from the film.
To read more – see: Staff Sergeant Williams’ Hat
Editor, Official Website of Ian Hendry
A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography: