Gritty realism and a riveting performance by Steve McQueen highlight the World War II action/drama `Hell Is For Heroes,' directed by Don Siegel. The setting is France, 1944, and American troops are spread thin across a sector of the Siegfried Line. When heavy action in another area precipitates troop movement, a squad of six men is left behind to hold the position until reinforcements arrive, which means a day or maybe two of making the Germans believe they are actually up to strength with a full complement of men. Not an easy task, but like the man said, war is hell. With Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) in charge, and left to their own devices for survival, the men of the 2nd Squad dig in for what just may be the longest night of their lives. And for some, it will prove to be not only the longest, but their last. In the shadow of a murderous pill box held by the enemy, the soldiers make their stand and add yet another footnote to another chapter in the history of the eternal struggle for freedom.
Filmed in stark black&white, Siegel's film succinctly captures the fatal brutality of war, in terms perhaps not as graphic, but every bit as effectively as Steve Spielberg would do some thirty-six years later with his monumental film `Saving Private Ryan.' Siegel may not have had the special effects in 1961 that Spielberg had at his disposal in 1998, but he did have an excellent screenplay (by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr) from which to work. He tells his story in a direct, unromanticized way that maintains the focus and conveys the sense of urgency of the moment, through which he builds the tension and suspense that makes the peril of the situation immediate and real. Siegel had two predominant elements going for him that helped him achieve success with this venture: One was an instinctive knowledge of what works and how to deliver it; but most of all, he had Steve McQueen to sell it.
McQueen plays Pvt. John Reese, a veteran soldier who transfers into this particular outfit on the very day they are ordered to the front line. And that's just the way Reese wants it. When he reports for duty (three days late), he runs into Sergeant Pike (Fess Parker), who had served with him in another campaign. It's late evening, and the troops are assembling at an old church outside of town that now serves as a makeshift barracks; Pike sees Reese and asks him how he is. `Thirsty,' Reese replies. `Town's off limits,' Pike tells him. The very next scene shows Reese walking into town and finding what appears to be the only bar on a lonely street. Stepping up to the counter, Reese asks the bartender (a woman) for a bottle. `One pack or two?' he asks. `We aren't allow to serve soldiers--' she says. `Two,' he replies, and setting the cigarettes on the counter, he walks around and takes a bottle. And now, without a doubt, we know exactly who and what Reese is; the personification of the iconoclastic loner, embodied to perfection in the form of Steve McQueen.
By all accounts, McQueen was not only a tough guy on screen, but in real life as well; tough meaning that he was always up for a challenge of any kind, and determined to live by his own set of rules, no matter what the cost. But he was a complex individual, and that was but one side of his true persona. To play Reese, McQueen went to that dark, stoic side of himself, exaggerated it, and the result was one of the most intense characters he ever created. Reese is a force of one, adamant and relentless, single-minded and fatalistic. At the moment he's on the Siegfried Line, but for him it's just another battle in a war he's been waging with life since the day he was born. And he knows deep down that it's a war he's never going to win; it's just a matter of time before his hand plays out, and being on the line is just as good a place as any. For him, it's not a matter of options, but of inevitability. It's an exemplary performance, and one for which McQueen never received the acclaim he was due, which unfortunately was not an isolated instance in his career. There was Vin in `The Magnificent Seven,' Frank Bullitt in `Bullitt' and Tom Horn in `Tom Horn,' as well. And that's but a sample of the work he did for which he never received enough recognition. His only real acknowledgement came with his creation of Jake Holman in `The Sand Pebbles,' a role for which he was nominated and should have received the Oscar for Best Actor. But Reese was one of his first, and one of his best.
The supporting cast includes Bobby Darin (Corby), James Coburn (Henshaw), Mike Kellin (Kolinsky), Joseph Hoover (Captain Loomis), Bill Mullikin (Cumberly), Nick Adams (Homer) and Bob Newhart in his film debut as Pvt. Driscoll. Hard-hitting and with unforgiving realism, `Hell Is For Heroes,' though on a smaller scale, perhaps, than Spielberg's `Ryan,' is one of the most effective and memorable war films ever made; Siegel gave it direction and focus, McQueen brought it to life. And it's quite simply one of the best of it's kind you'll ever see. I rate this one 10/10.