"So, what's the charge? Failing to obey an order? Or drunk in charge of a cigarette lighter? Oh, you crazy bastard! You'd prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!"
-prisoner of war Joe Roberts
Sean Connery had become a superstar by the middle of the 1960s thanks to his role as James Bond. This superstardom was assured with the release of the third Bond picture Goldfinger (1964), a wonderfully stylish thriller which many view as the definitive James Bond film.
Connery, however, took pains to assure the world that Bond was only one role he was capable of playing. To that end, in between cinematic assignments as 007, he chose roles which were quite different from Bond. One of the most memorable of these was his role in Marnie (1964) which is probably the most unique of all of Alfred Hitchcock's movies as it isn't so much a thriller as it is a character study involving psychology. This low-key presentation didn't generate much attention for Marnie upon its initial release, but, over the years, the movie has generated a more positive reputation.
Perhaps the best of Connery's non-Bond work in the 60s, though, came with his role in this Sidney Lumet picture, which was sandwiched in between the Bond pictures Goldfinger and Thunderball (1965), and, like Marnie, became overshadowed by Bondmania.
In a British military prison in Libya during WWII, Connery portrays Joe Roberts, one of five newly arrived prisoners. The others are Jacko King (Ossie Davis), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson).
Upon their arrival, the quintet are immediately introduced to the unfriendly staff sargeant Williams (Ian Hendry) and his right hand R.S.M. Wilson (Harry Andrews), who describes to them the hill of the title; a man-made hill which the prisoners routinely scale with full backpacks in the scorching sunlight. This daily ordeal becomes too overwhelming for Stevens, who eventually dies while escalating the hill.
Williams's decision to cover Stevens's death up prompts the remaining four to begin quietly rebelling against him. They unofficially designate Roberts as their leader due to his familiarity with Williams. The more considerate medical officer (Michael Redgrave) and sargeant Harris (Ian Bannen) also begin expressing their disapproval of Williams's tactics. Roberts hopes to use their influence to bring Williams to justice properly. However, while Bartlett becomes indifferent to what his fellow prisoners are going through and attempts to ingratiate himself to Wilson, King and McGrath make no secret of wanting to take matters into their own hands, despite Roberts's warnings that such action would simply undermine their own position. The ending illustrates how powerless everyone in the prison truly is.
As Connery had become a superstar, it's not surprising that he received above-the-title billing. He received glowing reviews from film critics, thus proving for all time that his acting wasn't simply limited to playing James Bond.
In additon to his acting talent, though, what ensured that Connery would go on to be an acclaimed artist is his willingness to share the spotlight with other actors, with this movie perhaps being the first example of that as all the other actors here are equally great. Davis, in particular, has a great moment in which King protests his treatment by walking around the prison wearing only his underwear.
The film has an appropriately gritty, uncomfortable feel to it, due in part to it being shot in the Spanish desert. The black-and-white photography adds to the intensity.
Like Marnie, this film is viewed as a classic today & it also paved the way for similar dramas such as Midnight Express (1978) and Brokedown Palace (1999).