A Siegel Film: Hell Is For Heroes (1962)
The fourth in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.
A squadron of men are ordered to help hold a position along the Siegfried Line during WWII after they believed they were being sent home. The majority of the company then pulls out to cover a northern position, leaving the squad alone and undermanned. They then try to deceive the enemy into believing the full force is still present. They hold out until they don't.
This is the plot of Don Siegel's 1962 film Hell Is For Heroes, and it tells little of its cumulative impact. It's a brutal, vicious, cynical little war picture that also happens to be rich in characterization (it's almost as good as the equally brutal Men In War, Anthony Mann's Korean War film). The star, as it were, is Steve McQueen, a burnt out master sergeant busted down to private who joins the squad right before deployment. He says little - usually knife-edged insults to his superiors, peers, and a grabby barmaid. Then he goes back to oiling his gun. It's a superbly understated performance, his rage simmering all the way down through his perfectly pressed pants.
It's truly an ensemble piece however, with Bob Newhart (in his film debut), James Coburn, Harry Guardino, Bobby Darin, and Fess Parker all putting in good work. Darin is especially charming as the huckster infantryman, selling his black-market wares with capitalistic gusto, and teaching Newhart how to shoot a gun with aggrieved insolence.
Siegel streamlines the exposition, hustling the soldiers up to the line with military precision, only stopping to secure a ravishing-sunset-in-ravaged-church shot to crystallize the men's dismay at having to court death once again. Characters are filled in: Coburn is affable and technically adept, Guardino gruff and loyal, Darin bombastic and kind, Parker calm and workmanlike. McQueen is just pissed.
Then, Siegel details the process of their work, insisting on repetitions: dummy ammo boxes are set up to make noise and deceive the Germans into thinking a large patrol is around. We see Guardino order Coburn to retrieve wire, and the laborious process of setting them up in the field, each men's progress detailed and repeated. This repetition comes back when McQueen ignores orders and leads a team to take out a pillbox surrounded by mines. In an extended sequence, McQueen's hand searches for a mine, and places a mark. Then Coburn and another soldier feel for them in turn. Each of these motions is documented and repeated beyond what is necessary to establish the situation. What is nailed home is how monotonous the work in staying alive is. And when there's an explosion, the shock is magnified by the process that came before it.
These processes also forge the adoration the men have for each other - no one else can do what they can - so when the main crisis arrives, and Guardino opts to follow the chain of command rather than green light a mission that could save them all, he's painted not as a coward but as a man doing his job. Despite the soldiers' opposition to his decision, they still respect him. They are tremendously humane in their own way.
Siegel admirably keeps out of the mess, adding few flourishes until the battle erupts, where one camera move adheres to my mind. There's an explosion, a man is gashed open, and the cut is to a view from above, the camera tracks as the bleeding, screaming man is hauled into the back of a jeep. It is quick and precise, but extremely powerful because of the restraint Siegel shows in the rest of the film.
It ends with redemption in blood and wonders whether the redemption's worth it. I think it is.