Sunday, July 18, 2010

extract from work in progress.

Jacko King: “Somebody got to have the guts to cancel some of them wrong orders.”
Roberts: “There’d be no bloody army left if we didn’t obey orders!”

The Hill opens with an elaborately extended tracking shot floating away from a soldier collapsing on the summit of the hill and being carried off to the infirmary. The shot takes in the entirety of the fort and the surrounding area, a vast, flat plane of which the hill is the centre.

The most immediate precursor to the image of the prisoner watching the sand drain out of his bag and then collapse is Camus’ use of the Myth of Sisyphus.

As a punishment for having imprisoned Death Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again and come to rest exactly where it started. For Camus this is the central absurdity of existence: endless, fruitless labour.

The hill is the means by which Connery’s “broken” Sgt. Major Roberts is to be reshaped. In his refusal to send his men to certain death and his deeper inability to make sense of the current situation, the rules of war and the overhang of Victorian institutions and ideologies into the mid twentieth century Roberts is an Absurdist hero of a sort, the man who follows one of Camus injunctions, to revolt. Roberts certainly complies with the archetype of the rebel, terse, ironic, intransigent, individualistic.

But The Hill, which on one level appears to be a critique of militarism and British institutions such as the Army and the Empire, is less indebted to Camus and The Absurd than first appears. The Hill’s messages is deeply ambiguous, and the ambiguity surrounds the contestation among the characters with regard to the hill itself. What’s certain is that the hill is central to everything that occurs in the film and is at the forefront of all the character’s minds, as a threat, a tool or a promise. In a sense the central character of The Hill is the hill itself, and in a film replete with point of view shots the hill also has one, watching silently as the latest set of prisoners are drilled around its base by Staff Sgt Williams.

This is, if you like, a hill with two sides, representing discipline and punishment, but also organisation and collaboration: death but also transformation. Imperious and immutable, the hill is man himself in his purest expression, the symbol of the basic rejection necessary for any kind of conscious or collective existence to come into being. This is the real conceived not as a void at the core of things, or as a cut, but as an expression of the will. In The Hill, man, both individually and collectively evolves through the rigour of reshaping himself. Existence is predicated on labour, the question is how and why the labour is performed.
The British psychoanalyst Darian Leader has identified the message that the child receives from the parent as it begins to falteringly achieve motor skills, reaching out its hand to grasp at an object, trying to take its first steps. The message, he claims is : “live!” Live could be usefully replaced by a host of other commands, to varying degrees: “Strive” “Grow” “Develop” “Overcome”. But living is unthinkinable, unattainable without this basic call. Whether this call is/should be more in the nature of a command or an appeal may be the basic modality of the passage through from the explicit paternalism of pre-war society to the increasingly liberal post war world. And this modality is the core of the argument in The Hill, the ways the different interest groups and power relations compete around and are shaped by their relationship to the hill.
It’s easy to imagine a contempory Hollywood remake in which Sgt Major Roberts blows the hill up in a liberal, feelgood spectacle, to whoops from the liberated prisoners, bonded together now, having overcome their mutual suspicion and animosity, enriched by each others’ difference. Ding-dong, the hill is dead. But the hill cannot die .

The tagline for the film is “They went up it as men! They came down it as animals!” Yet the reverse is true. Primal, implacable, indestructible, the Hill is the thing without which man would still be wallowing in the slime. A hill is what each man must construct in order to free himself from his animality, the corollary of the voice of the other calling out “live!”

Between the parent crouched in expectation and the child struggling to reach them stands the hill.


Rossikovsky said...

Are you suggesting that the hill is playing the same kind of role as the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

Also, on a slightly related topic, are you going to be writing about "Play Dirty"? It always gets maligned as a "Dirty Dozen" rip-off, which I think is unfair, as a) it's nothing like TDD and b) I think it's a better (at least much more complex) film anyway.

Great last line, too.

carl said...

errr.. i| may be..except i don't really have a take on 2001, though i suppose i do think of the hill as being alien, in the sense that its the non-human form on which humanity is predicated ie why does one become anything at all except that from without and within you are complelled to do so, i think in the fim Roberts fundamentally understands this but is conflicted, torn bewteen an impossible freedom and the possibilty that the hill must be reclaimed.... ( i intend to demonstrate that the film claims this, its not my claim as such) that's why the first quote is there, to demonstrate the conflict

I've just googled play dirty.. looks great but i wont be considering it at the moment, I'm sticking to The Hill The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, If, O lucky Man, Brit Hospital. House of Whipcord, frightmare, House of Mortal Sin, the Confessions series with detours into carry ons and british sex comedies.....and cannibal holocaust and deep throat...

though if you have a copy of the brit "giallo" Assault hanging around anywhere i'll happily take it off your hands!

Rossikovsky said...

The idea of the hill/monolith as alien compeller of growth has pretty mystical roots, as it could be seen as a shard of "The Absolute" which in druidry and esoteric Christianity is the impassive, awesome origin of the universe that compels all growth downstream. The Darian Leader quote is slightly reminiscent of Gurdjieff, although much more optimistic than Gudjieff, who saw almost all human behaviour as impelled/automatic.

I've been trying to think of other examples of films which feature this kind of omniescent, inscrutible presence, and can only think of "Picnic At Hanging Rock", though I'm sure there must be plenty of other examples.

I've not heard of "Assault" (must do some googling myself) but one other disappeared film that intrigues me is "The Black Windmill". When I saw it as a teenager, it had the same kind of reputation as "Get Carter" i.e. as a remorselessly brutal Caine film with only middling artistic merit, but of course as GC has risen in esteem "The Black Windmill" has disappeared. I remember it being really good. Also, it features one of the earliest (surely accidental) instances of post-modernism when Caine walks past a cinema that is showing "The Battle Of Britain", starring one Michael Caine.

carl said...

i wrote a longish response there rossy, but somehow it went astray.. for the moment just let me say...

Rossikovsky said...

Ha Ha! Cheers Mr. Impostume. I'll see if it lives up to my memory of it.

Also, sorry to keep bombarding you with suggestions, but one film that you might want to check out, and is pertinent to the themes explored in "The Hill" is "The Bofors Gun".

It's a pretty harrowing film really, especially if one recognises many of the traits of David Warner's character in oneself (i.e. naive lower-middle class Englishman acting mostly in bad faith).

I think it takes on many similar issues as The Hill, especially the idea of having the courage (or not in this case) to do your duty, but comes at them from a different angle.

carl said...

Bombard away, all very useful/helpful... i'll check it out if i can find it...

like war movies then, do you?

unfashionably, i really liked " Inglorious Bastards" and thought that guy throroughly deseved the oscar

Rossikovsky said...

I'm not especially keen on war movies as such. It's just that in the '80's I think Channel 4 and one of the local ITV channels used to show all these now obscure British films from the '60's, just to fill late-night time schedules more than anything else, and in each case I more or less watched them accidentally.

It's easy to see why the likes of "Play Dirty" and "The Bofors Gun" weren't commercially successful or fondly regarded, but they were nonetheless extremely powerful films that seemed to stick with me long afterwards. "Robbery" starring Stanley Baker is another good example. (Stanley Baker is a very intriguing character as a sort of precursor to Sean Connery - his career is no doubt worth a re-evaluation). Also "Pulp!" (which I think should have been renamed "Carry On Up The Spider Strategem").

Basically, I think there's a treasure trove out there waiting to be rediscovered. It's interesting to see from the Youtube comments that "Play Dirty" is just starting to garner a belated cult following.

As for Ingluourious Bastards, I've yet to see it, but I think you're right not to let fashion affect your enjoyment of it. It's often the work that is greeted with the most contempt that turns out to have the most value.