extract from work in progress.
THE HILL ITSELF
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.