Hell Is For Heroes (1962 USA)

Steve McQueen was striving to make it big in Hollywood and used the force of his ego to position himself as the star here. This didn’t endear him to the picture’s original director Robert Pirosh, who also wrote the screenplay. McQueen’s insistence on rewriting scenes and placing himself in the center of the action spoiled Piroff’s vision of a fighting unit that worked together with no single individual standing out. McQueen got Pirosh fired, and Don Siegel was hired with McQueen’s approval to take over. Siegel knew how to stroke McQueen’s fragile psyche, and in some cases, simply agreed to some of McQueen’s suggestions then did his own thing. If you keep a close eye on Private Reese (McQueen), this sense of embittered self confidence pervades his character throughout the story. He’s right even when he’s wrong.

Determined to see things through his own way, this culminates in Reese’s self sacrifice at the finale after his earlier defiance of orders resulted in the death of fellow soldiers. The disparate cast making up the remainder of Sergeant Pike’s (Fess Parker) second squad includes Bobby Darin, James Coburn, Harry Guardino, and Mike Kellin. Nick Adams joins the group as a displaced Polish hanger-on, and Bob Newhart stumbles on the scene crashing his jeep into an obstacle during battle. As Private Driscoll, it appears Newhart is rehearsing his nervous, stuttering stand-up comedian persona when he’s given an assignment to keep the Germans second guessing his telephone patter over a microphone in a deserted pillbox.

Generally realistic in it’s portrayal of exhausted soldiers engaged in war time combat, the film suffers some disconnect in the main battle that concludes the story. All the while we’re convinced that the small Army squad has done the best it can to simulate a larger force, but when their position is finally discovered, the stock footage that’s woven into the action on screen makes it look like a major battle is taking place. Granted, the group is rejoined by the squad of men that were sent in advance to scope out the German positions, but it just didn’t seem to gel with the original flow of the story. Hell Is For Heroes was obviously shot on a shoestring, in fact they ran out of time and cash. What it lacks in epic settings and lavish production it makes up for due to the stark situation the protagonists are confronted with.

This is the only World War II movie I’ve seen that not only mentions The Siegfried Line, but actually offers a visual representation of what it looked like. The ‘Line’ was a four hundred mile long defensive array of eighteen thousand bunkers and interlocking rows of pyramid shaped, concrete anti-tank obstacles named ‘dragon’s teeth’. Situated on the border of France and Germany, Hitler had it built between 1936 and 1938, anticipating that some day a great army would attempt to invade The Fatherland. The name originated from a similar construction dating back to the first World War; the German name for it was the West Wall. There’s a quick scene in the film that demonstrates what the ‘dragon’s teeth’ looked like.

So we have a movie that lies somewhere between 1960s cheese and today’s preachy dialogue and ultraviolent realism. It’s not packed with blood, gore, and guts, but when people die in this flick, they die in agony, and it’s effective. The combat is loud, intense, and convincing. McQueen’s character is somewhat unlikable until he makes an heroic attempt at attacking a pillbox. James Coburn, as the mechanic who can fix anything, is more likable and Bob Newhart is comic relief as the clerk who ends up fighting in the front lines.Another realistic touch is the slow waiting life of everyday soldiers. Much of the first hour is taken up by idle chat between the soldiers. While that kind of pacing might bore some viewers (and it did try my patience a bit), I thought it lent the film verisimilitude. Although this is not good enough to be a classic, Hell Is For Heroes is an interesting yet minor anti-war statement.

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