Sean Connery, the legendary Scottish actor, shook off his mortal coil on Halloween this year at the age of 90 and the world is a little less interesting because of it. In the midst of a global pandemic and a contentious American presidential election, the loss of Sir Sean Connery got sort of lost in the media shuffle of other coverage.
From my private library. Think I’m a Sean Connery fan?
However, to a fan such as I, it was anything but lost. Like most movie fans, he was my favorite James Bond but many of his non-Bond films were favorites, as well, especially the ones made during the Bond years. In many ways, he was the last true movie star: Handsome, rugged, charismatic, and an actor of criminally underrated depth and ability.
Luckily, when I was still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank, I was hired by good friend Bill Krohn to research the making of several films handpicked by filmmakers in a tribute book titled Serious Pleasures to commemorate the 1997 anniversary of Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. The films chosen that I was fortunate enough to write about included the first published work of my Point Blank research that I reposted here. Fortunately, Woody Allen (!) chose The Hill (1965), as a personal underrated favorite worthy of rediscovery and I was the one who did the ‘Making Of” essay about it. It remains one of my personal favorites, as well. Here then is that 1997 essay published in French and Italian only but translated by yours truly. I consider it a worthy inclusion to the myriad of Connery tributes. Rest in peace, Sir Sean. Your legend will always loom large.
– Dwayne Epstein
Chapter opening for my essay on THE HILL.
Woody Allen’s thoughts on THE HILL translated: “WITHOUT COMPROMISE by Woody Allen
THE HILL, for whatever reason, is little known to American viewers. In the career of Sidney Lumet, which includes a large number of great films, THE HILL is perhaps the best. In any case, I place it among the best American films. The execution of this gripping story is wonderful, whether it’s a series of gorgeous renditions or the inspired photo. It’s a brutal, uncompromising spectacle, and every time I see it I’m amazed that a film of this quality has gone unnoticed at this point.”
In 1964, when Sean Connery was starting to feel trapped playing the popular but unchallenging James Bond, producer Kenneth Hyman approached him about doing The Hill, a script written by Ray Rigby from the stage play he co-wrote with R.S. Allen, based on Rigby’s experiences in a North African detention camp during World War II. Connery initially declined because he was hoping to make a film version of The Adventures of Moll Flanders with his wife, Diane Cilento.
When the project fell through because Cilento was tied up filming The Agony and the Ecstasy, Connery reconsidered Hyman’s offer even though Thunderball was scheduled to start production shortly. Happily, director Sidney Lumet, who was already attached to the project, had a reputation for completing his films at break-neck speed, because he edited in the camera and demand that his actors deliver on the first few takes.
Connery signed on to play Joe Roberts, a busted non-conforming officer doing time in a hellish military prison, with no illusions about what a tough role it would be, or why he would be playing it. “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put the money up for The Hill,” he said later. Ian Fleming purists had always felt that Connery’s receding hairline, preceding lined face and tattooed forearms acquired in the Navy, worked against Bond’s image, but they were perfect for playing Joe Roberts. As an added touch, he decided to go without his toupee for the first time and grew a moustache for the role.
For Sidney Lumet, it was a chance to work with a cast of classically trained actors like Harry Andrews, of whom he said: “When you get that kind of training….It’s brimming over. You can’t contain it. Everything is so rich. To have that kind of weight going for you in a supporting part is just magic.” He could have been speaking of anyone in the cast, which included Alfred Lynch (who co-starred with Connery in the minor service comedy, On The Fiddle), Roy Kinnear, Ossie Davis, Jack Watson and Ian Hendry. A bonus for Connery was the inclusion of an old friend from his earliest days as an actor, Ian Bannen.
Exteriors were filmed in Gabo De Gata near Almeira, Spain. Prior to the cast’s arrival, the prison encampment with its punishment hill were constructed under the supervision of art director Herbert Smith and production manager Dick Frith. Since the Spanish desert sand did not mix with cement, one hundred tons of sand had to be shipped in, as well as 2,000 gallons of water for the oasis around which the camp constructed. Five hundred workers toiled for two weeks erecting the ominous hill, a 35-foot-high monstrosity made of 10,000 feet of steel and 60 tons of lumber, stone and sand. Once filming began, twelve men raked the sand daily.
Even though exterior filming began in October, the temperature remained a blistering 115 degrees. For the next five weeks Lumet put cast and crew through ten-hour work days, six days a week. The close camera angles made stand-ins impossible, so actors were required to run up and down the hill with full packs in as many continuous takes as were needed to get the shot. “Doing it in several takes would have been charity,” said Lumet, “The actors knew it would be difficult but they were all rugged men who were able to fulfill what were expected of them.” Lumet himself took the hill to make the point.
“We were in the bloody desert and the food and water were ghastly,” recalled Ian Bannen. “It’d be hard to find words to describe the location…[It] was as smelly as Aberdeen on a hot day. Fishy-smelling, that’s what it was like. Just awful.” But Lumet was not a sadist — quite the contrary. “I think Time Magazine summed it up when it said Sidney makes love to his cast and crew,” added Bannen. “He’s a great sweetener.” All the actors fell ill, including the stoic Sean Connery, who pulled a tendon and suffered a short bout of what he called “Spanish tummy.”
Lumet and cinematographer Oswald Morris used a variety of lenses to shake the story free of its stage origins. Most of the action is set against the landscape at the beginning of the film, for which a 25mm lens was used; as the characters deepen, the 18mm lens is increasingly brought into play, not only to track feelings but to distort the officers’ faces as their power crumbles. Lumet also made extensive use of a handheld camera, with jerky zoom-ins during moments of shock and tension.
Following two weeks of shooting in a London studio, the film wrapped and Sean Connery went immediately to work on Thunderball. Connery’s disdain for the Bond films was understandable: While he was filming with Lumet the British tabloids ran headlines like “Bond Takes The Hill,” and suggested that his rugged appearance in one behind-the-scene still was the result of a falling out with the Bond producers, and that it would ruin his image. “I’m not conscious of any image,” Connery bristled. “I play a part because I want to play it. Even if The Hill is not a success, does it matter? Some of the finest films haven’t been commercial successes.”
The Hill premiered in competition at Cannes, where it tied with France’s Platoon 317 for Best Screenplay. It was released in the U.S. early in 1965, making it hard for Academy voters to remember it by year’s end. Ironically, the wildly successful Thunderball won an Oscar for special effects. Despite good reviews, The Hill did poorly in the all-important U.S. market, but made money in Europe. Ian Bannen recalling seeing it in Greece; “It was incredible. I never witnessed cheering and applause like that in a cinema before.” One factor in the film’s domestic failure may have been the thick accents of most of the cast; several prints were actually made for the American market with subtitles, to no avail. As Mark Twain once said, “America and England are two countries separated by a common language.”
Undaunted, Ken Hyman went on to produce another film for MGM that starts in a military prison, The Dirty Dozen (1967), which became the sixth highest-grossing film in the studio’s history. Sidney Lumet worked again with cast members Kinnear, Andrews and Bannen, and has made four more pictures with Connery to date. As for Connery, he cites The Hill as “An example of a film that wasn’t a success with the public but eventually became a supposed classic. The idea was to make an ensemble film and we made it.” It remains his personal favorite among all his films.