Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel, 1962): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

hellforheroesNew Hollywood began to emerge in the 1960’s bringing a plethora of great war films to the big screen.  Whereas the 1940’s war films were generally patriotic with wholesome characters representing the allied forces, the 1960’s war films were often questionable regarding motives.  Among some of the more popular WWII films produced during the 1960’s were J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Hell is for Heroes is not as well known as the aforementioned films, but it is well-acted, directed and highly entertaining.

A gritty, dramatic WWII film shot in B & W,  Hell is for Heroes stars Steve McQueen and a terrific line-up of fine actors including James Coburn, Harry Guardino, Fess Parker, Bobby Darin and Bob Newhart – in his first acting gig.  This was produced a year before McQueen’s role in The Great Escape and was directed by Don Siegel who went on to direct several great Clint Eastwood films such as Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me.

John Reese (Steve McQueen) a former sergeant, is now a private because he loses control when not in combat,  “but when the chips are down, he’s a damn good soldier.”  He and a small squad of men are ordered to hold their defence against a whole company of German soldiers on the Siegfried Line, until reinforcements arrive.  The problem is the Germans begin to encroach upon the squad picking off the men, one by one.  It is Reese’s idea to take the battle to the Germans, in order to indicate that the allies have the upper hand, and he wants to move on the closest pillbox – through barbed wire and landmines.  Needless to say, the first attempt is a failure.  Reese can’t get an even break, as his ass is constantly being chewed out by Captain Loomis (Joseph Hoover), and during the second attempt he’s forced at the forefront by the same dear captain.

There is a flaw when the soldiers are moving through a mine field in the dark, on their belly using their hands to feel for the mines, however Siegel’s creativity with other shots – as the men move through the dragon’s teeth, also a great overhead shot of a dying soldier with his guts shot out, as well as live  footage edited in – justifies any weaknesses.

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