Connery may be the star of the Hill and the character with whom the audience is supposed to empathise, but the film is comprehensively stolen from him by a trio of superb British character actors, Ian Bannen (who also steals the film from Connery again when they next meet in The Offence) Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.
Andrews plays R.S.M Wilson the de facto ruler of the Glasshouse (the Commandant is a bloated upper-class sybarite who spends his time whoring and having the wool pulled over his eyes.) It’s one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid. Wilson represents the Empire, the pre Second World War world of hierarchy and discipline, the belief in Queen and Country and Duty, the man whose job it is to iron out deviations in the smooth daily running of the British war machine by running insubordinate or treasonous soldiers over The Hill. In a sense Wilson is The Hill, monolithic in his certainty and his unerring attachment to the rules, physically and mentally almost superhumanly robust. In a superb two-shot sequence after a suicidal drinking competition in the Officers’ mess we see Wilson and Stevens in separate showers. Wilson is scrubbing himself vigorously, whistling, brimming over with vim and gusto. Stevens stands wretched, head down and hung over, the water drumming on his back. Wilson, like the Hill can not be defeated or beaten down, he is of a different order, he has the right stuff, the mettle.
The attacks on Wilson, on the Empire, on the State, come from all sides, from within, through the ambitious Stevens, the liberal Harris, the weak and uncertain Medical Officer and without, through Roberts, the man who has lost faith in the pre-War world and has set out to destroy it and his cellmates, an array of those post-War figures who will begin to chip away at the old confidence and the sense of a natural order, the proles, the spivs, the queers, the uppity “darkies” who think they have the same rights as true-born Englishman. In these respects the Hill is really a film about the Sixties rather than a portrayal of the 1940s, a period in which the aristocratic old-order, The Establishment, was being eaten away by the democratic popular forces and meritocratic upsurges of a modern age it simply could not understand.
In one of The Hill's key sequences the prisoners begin a revolt over the death of their fellow inmate, Stevens, spilling out of their cells and standing chanting his name on the gangways, poised on edge of revolt, of a riot.
Lumet is often criticized (with much justice) for his over casual approach to mise-en-scene but here, as in the rest of The Hill, the camerawork and framings, the use of extreme low and high angles that alternately turn Wilson from a towering figure, a colossus around whose base the camera slowly rotates, to the implacable centre of the crowded, geometric intricacy of the deep focus crane shots keep his domination of the frame, and the Glasshouse itself intact (and align him even more fully with the hill, he is both the base and apex of an invisible hill, the hill of his absolute authority, standing there in the Glasshouse itself.)
Wilson goes about quelling the incipient riot with an exemplary combination of common-sense, humour, camaraderie, bribery, paternalism, quiet menace, enormous charm. At one point he threatens to round up the ring-leaders if the men won’t go back to their cells.
“Who are the ringleaders?” A voice calls down cockily, sure that Wilson doesn’t know and is merely bluffing.
The camera cuts in close and low on Wilson’s face as he somehow simultaneously barks and drawls his response, his head filling the screen.
“Every fifth man!”
…here is power in a flash, nakedly arbitrary, breaking up the fragile solidarity, exposing your fear that the mob cannot hide you, that you may be the one to suffer the full penalty, unfairly. You weren’t a ringleader yet you might be punished as such. Here is power, necessarily revealing itself, to disrupt and discompose before the reasonable discourse is brought in again to soothe and cajole.
“Every fifth man!”
A ripple runs through the crowd, the sound of something cohesive breaking up, of a focused energy dispersing, the shift from the collective to the particular. The wind goes out of the prisoner’s sails, the spirit, the spell, has been broken.
This is how they do it Carl, this is how they’ve always done it.
First it’s “every fifth man!” Then it’s extra rations for tea if you all go quietly back to your cells.