12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice by Brian Brems

12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice #2 – ’The Hill’

The Hill Movie Essay - 1965 Film

After the debut of 12 Angry Men in 1957, Sidney Lumet took a break from examining the justice system on screen. Though this subject matter would define much of his long career, it would not have seemed obviously so in the years after his courtroom drama first feature. Following the success of 12 Angry Men, Lumet continued to work in television before steadily moving into features full time, but initially carved out a space as an adapter of theatrical works. The Fugitive Kind (1960), A View From the Bridge (1962 and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) brought the work of great American playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill, respectively, to the screen. His interest in systems does reappear in the 1964 drama Fail-Safe, often seen as the dramatic counterpoint to Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 black comedy Dr. Strangelove, in which an American nuclear bomber is accidentally sent on a bombing mission to Moscow as the U.S. military and civilian leadership desperately try — in vain — to recall it. Lumet would finally return to the justice system the following year with The Hill (1965), a WWII-era drama about five British prisoners sentenced to labor in a stockade in North Africa for crimes against their own army. While incarcerated, the prisoners fight against the sadistic power structure of a chain of command bent on breaking them down and rehabilitating them for reentry into the armed forces in the fight against Adolf Hitler.

The Hill takes its title from the central symbol of order and control that occupies a substantial portion of the open prison yard. The film’s opening shot emphasizes a hill, which will become a powerful symbol of injustice. An anonymous soldier slowly reaches its summit before collapsing from the heat. The continuous take cranes back from the hill, which the imprisoned men are forced to climb and descend in perpetuity, underlining the smallness of each individual prisoner. Lumet’s directorial credit appears against the culmination of the crane shot overlooking the entirety of the prison, associating his vision with the critique of the institution. The hill, a 30-foot, triangular pile of dirt held together by two walls of stone on either side, is a tool that the prison’s power structure uses to maintain order. Like a traditional prison’s solitary confinement (“the hole”), the hill serves as an ever-present reminder, the looming threat of the chain of command’s ability to inflict punishment on disobedient prisoners. Its utter pointlessness makes it doubly imposing and absurd; it serves no architectural function, has no aesthetic value. It exists only to be climbed and descended, as its razor-thin summit demonstrates. No sooner has a prisoner conquered the hill than he must descend it again for lack of footing. It is likewise inescapable. Located centrally, the hill becomes the sun around which all prisoners and guards orbit. The camera almost always catches a shot of the hill, either in whole or in part, even in scenes set indoors; it looms in the distance, its presence forcing itself into the men’s every waking moment.

The film’s main narrative action begins with the introduction of five new prisoners to the institution, brought in by truck and lined up for inspection. Each has committed an offense worthy of imprisonment; the men, Roberts (Sean Connery), Stevens (Alfred Lynch), King (Ossie Davis), Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) and McGrath (Jack Watson), are not friends, but bound together by their sentences and destined to share a cell. As played by Connery, Roberts becomes the roguish hero, fighting against the corrupt power structure of the institution; he is a far cry from James Bond, and more closely resembles the noble hero of Cool Hand Luke (1967), played two years later by Paul Newman, who created an iconic figure of rebellion who nonetheless is destroyed by an unfair system that was perfectly suited to the moment of the late 1960s. Roberts’ opponents are the brutal administrators of the prison camp, led by Royal Sergeant Major Wilson (Harry Andrews), who is an institutionalist through and through. “One job’s as important as the next. Is that clear?” he tells his subordinates. He is supported by two other men, Harris (Ian Bannen) and Williams (Ian Hendry), each of whom have very different approaches to disciplining the prisoners — Harris believes in treating them with dignity and respect, while Williams uses corporal punishment and forced labor to keep them in line.

When the new prisoners are first brought in, Wilson subjects them to humiliation that anticipates the celebrated opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987); he berates them (though less colorfully than R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick’s film) and confiscates personal belongings, including a wedding ring and love letters from one of the men’s wives. Lumet, like Kubrick later, emphasizes the means by which military institutions strip men of their individuality, reducing them to serial numbers and instantiating a desire to uphold the mission of the collective. That The Hill is set in a military prison, as opposed to the boot camp locale of the first of half of Full Metal Jacket, situates Lumet’s film firmly within his own thematic preoccupations.

Like 12 Angry Men before it and a number of Lumet’s subsequent justice films, The Hill tackles the scourge of racism through its representation of the prison’s policy of segregating prisoners by race. Informing King that he will have to join the other black prisoners in their cell block, rather than bunking with his fellow new arrivals, he states the obvious: “You’re black,” Wilson tells King, who replies, “That makes me happy when I see some white men, sir.” King’s wit and facility with language cuts against the guards’ weaponized racial stereotypes intended to dismantle his sense of self. Though systemic racism is obviously not isolated to the American justice system or the history of the United States, the repeated emphasis on segregation within the British military prison coincides with the height of the Civil Rights movement in America; The character’s name, “King,” obviously aligns him with the most famous American to hold that moniker at a time when Martin Luther King is leading boycotts, marches and all manner of civil disobedience demonstrations across the U.S. Williams, the most sadistic of the guards, threatens King with the business end of his baton and warns him to “shut your mouth,” no doubt expressing the desires of both white supremacists and American moderates who fought against Dr. King to preserve the status quo.

Williams is a sadist, but the punishment he inflicts on the prisoners only serves to uphold the system of military prison camp law that supersedes him. As is often the case in Lumet’s justice films, the institutions take primacy and the individuals operate within them. Williams’ sadism and the prison’s institutional prerogatives cohere early in the film; after the new arrivals are checked in, Williams introduces them to the hill. To diminish the five new prisoners, Lumet photographs them from atop the hill, his camera shooting down at them as they take a lap around it at Williams’ direction. They are faceless, the shadows cast on their faces obscuring their identities. Lumet’s high angle simultaneously dwarfs the men and reinforces the power of the hill itself as a symbol of the military system’s power. He flips the angle, but preserves the power dynamic, when he shoots from a low vantage point at the base of the hill, watching the men scramble up, their feet slipping in the dirt, their heavy packs pulling them back down. When Williams commands the men to climb and descend the triangular hill over and over again, Lumet’s camera first tracks alongside them, following the trajectory of the dirt, which is encased by jagged white stones that give it structure. As the men climb, the camera climbs with them; as they descend, it descends. When they slow from the heat and exhaustion, the camera does, too. The hill is all-consuming, powerful enough to dictate the direction of the visual apparatus itself. Lumet only deviates from this pattern near the sequence’s climax, when he moves in to disorienting closeups of each of the men, sweat lining their faces, as their command of the hill in the scorching desert heat begins to slip away from them.

Life in the prison is characterized by strict regimentation and order, which Lumet highlights through production design and sound. Bars are often visible over prisoners’ shoulders, a constant reminder of their incarceration. But Lumet also consistently features the bars in shots of the guards as if to make the case that the jailers are just as much oppressed by the prison’s restrictions as the jailed. Hard lines are everywhere, from the prison’s white stone columns to its tiled floor, with black metal bars cutting across the space’s design. Without the bars and the barbed wire fence, the structure might easily be an exotic, luxurious villa. Though the film features some musical score, more often, Lumet relies on natural sounds, both to establish a realistic feel and escalate tension. Each time the men move in groups, the percussive sound of their marching feet on the prison’s stone floors accompanies their tightly ordered formations.

Also like 12 Angry Men, The Hill is exclusively male, situating itself firmly in masculine dynamics of power and domination. So many of the dialogue exchanges in the jury room in Lumet’s debut exemplify male posturing; each of the jurors performs strength for the others in a battle for the soul of the defendant on trial. Though Juror Number 8, as played by Henry Fonda, was a morally admirable advocate for justice and easy to root for — especially against the vitriolic rage of Number 3 (Lee J. Cobb), the snide condescension of Number 4 (E.G. Marshall), the callous indifference of Number 7 (Jack Warden) and the contemptible racism of Number 10 (Ed Begley) — The Hill does not make it so easy. The film’s ostensible heroes are prisoners, after all, their crimes having landed them in the military stockade at a time when they certainly could be of use against Hitler’s armies in North Africa.

Though violence and domination are foundational to the male power relationships explored in The Hill, a number of the scenes are also filled with an undercurrent of homoerotic tension which sometimes threatens to break loose into the open. The prison’s doctor, played by Michael Redgrave, takes a long look at Roberts after asking him to disrobe for a medical inspection upon his arrival in the camp. In one private moment, Officer Williams confides to Stevens that “we had a queer here last week,” twirling his baton all the while. Stevens, outraged at the implication, explodes: “I’m not a queer!” he shouts, charging at Williams but stopping before their bodies make contact. Williams, without irony, later tells a gathering of prisoners that they’re going to be “put under the showers” to “sweeten you up.” Any homosexuality in this environment must, by virtue of custom, be repressed; in Williams’s case, it may return as violent sadism, a dynamic that propels Nagisa Ôshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence, itself set in a prisoner-of-war camp and featuring a Japanese officer’s sexual fascination with a beautiful British soldier, played by David Bowie. When systems suppress desires that clash with the perceived dominant ideology, those desires often find alternate routes to the surface. When Stevens dies as a result of the harsh treatment inflicted upon him by Williams, the specter of unrealized homosexual desire haunts the narrative, just as it does in Oshima’s later film.

Williams, despite his sadism, is protected by the system because his methods are ultimately the expression of the system’s will. When Harris, a much gentler officer, suggests that Williams be punished, Wilson, their superior, declines to hold him accountable. Roberts attempts to marshal his fellow prisoners to serve as witnesses in a formal complaint against Williams in Stevens’s death, but the system ultimately frustrates those efforts and renders the official channel irrelevant. Wilson, in front of the entire prison’s inmates, peels off each one of Roberts’s cellmates and upbraids them, demanding to know if they saw the murder. McGrath and Bartlett weaken, with only King holding strong with Roberts in leveling the accusation against Williams. When Williams later confronts Roberts, he expresses confidence that “I’ll be exonerated.” Williams, having served the system in his brutal way, believes the system will protect him as he has protected it. He follows this verbal assault with a physical one against Roberts, as several guards throw him into a private cell and rough him up. His subsequent order is to send the four men out to the hill. Lumet, in just his second justice film, already shows signs of increasing cynicism not present in the profoundly idealistic 12 Angry Men.

Lumet’s sensitive portrayal of the challenges King faces as a Black man in the British army aligns with his contempt for the racism of Number 10 in 12 Angry Men, but also deepens it by representing prejudice in much harsher terms. Increasingly freed from the shackles of the Motion Picture Production Code by 1965 — indeed, Lumet’s own 1964 release The Pawnbroker had featured female nudity on screen — Wilson and other characters traffic in some truly ugly racial slurs and invective, all of it hurled at the heroic King. As played by Ossie Davis, King’s defiance of the injustice perpetrated by the prison’s white power structure makes him an icon of disobedience in sharp contrast to the screen persona of Sidney Poitier, who was then just a few years from going to dinner. After being subject to brutal racial insults by Wilson in front of the other prisoners, King strips off his clothes and charges into the office of the prison’s commandant in his underwear, violating the stuffy older man’s sense of decorum. King, nearly naked, stretches his black body out on the commandant’s sofa, smokes a cigarette, refuses to salute and, having gotten the superior officer’s attention, makes a resolute declaration: “Williams murdered Stevens.” The commandant looks shaken. King uses his blackness as a weapon against the white power structure, aghast at his transgressive expression of his own freedom of movement.

The Hill’s final sequence brings its competing ideologies into brutal conflict. In the cell, a shouting match erupts among all the film’s major players. King and McGrath stand outside, with the hobbled Roberts lying on his bunk while attended by the Medical Officer. Williams enters, berating the men and insisting that Roberts get to his feet and go out to the hill. Wilson follows behind, and reveals that Harris has filed a complaint against him, accusing him of Stevens’ murder. When Williams threatens erroneously to accuse the doctor of complicity in Stevens’ death, the Medical Officer indignantly calls Williams’s bluff. The men shout over one another, with Wilson and Williams eventually turning on one another in what appears to be the film’s cathartic moment of resolution. When Wilson raises his baton over Williams’s head, the gleeful Williams looking up at him anticipating the blow in an expression of newly visible masochistic desire, Wilson realizes the depth of his own brutality and the role he has played in bringing about his downfall. He wanders out muttering, with Roberts assuring him that his days of running the prison are finished. Here, however, is where Lumet’s film differs from 12 Angry Men’s ultimately affirming conclusion. While the blustering villains of Lumet’s debut eventually renounce their prejudices and admit defeat, and their behavior forgiven by the more magnanimous members of the jury, in The Hill, reconciliation is first offered and then suddenly retracted. The defeated Williams, knowing his time is up, collapses on the bunk across the cell from Roberts. While Roberts stares on, helpless from the foot injury given to him by Williams and his guards, King and McGrath charge into the cell and, off-screen, beat Williams to death while Roberts screams in protest that “We’ve won!” His shouts, his appeals to the men’s better angels are drowned out by Williams’ screams of pain. Roberts, a man who believed in the power of the system — his desire was always to file a complaint through official channels and bring Williams to justice through the system itself — is likewise defeated. Lumet smashes to black from Roberts’s impotent cries, unable to stop his friends and cellmates from exacting vigilante justice.

In 12 Angry Men, Number 3 wanted to use the justice system to punish a possibly innocent defendant for his own personal vengeance against a son who abandoned him, but was ultimately brought to heel. His final admission of the defendant’s innocence is the film’s emotional release, his vigilantism tamed. Here too, however, Lumet takes a step forward from the bitter conclusion of Fail-Safe, which ends with the American President (Henry Fonda) ordering a nuclear strike on New York City in exchange for the mistaken destruction of Moscow in order to avert total global annihilation. That film’s wrenching finale ultimately accepts the horror of the President’s sacrifice as the last noble resort, the ashes of which may form the basis for future peace. In The Hill, the retributive violence only perpetuates the cycle of punishment; Williams and Wilson will likely face systemic sanction for their violation of its rules, but that sanction does little to assuage the thirst for vengeance. In beating Williams to death, McGrath and King not only exact revenge for Stevens, but also for their own humiliations. But in doing so, they guarantee continued suffering, as they remain incarcerated for the killing. In its final moments, The Hill charts a path forward for Lumet’s justice films, which increasingly depart from the idealism of 12 Angry Men and reckon deeply with the justice system’s contradictory, irreconcilable principles.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.