Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hell Is For Heroes (1962)

Here's a taut, gritty war film with a solid cast and some neat stunt casting.

Hell Is For Heroes came out a year before one of the greatest war films ever made, The Great Escape.

American actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn appeared in both releases as well as The Magnificent Seven.

McQueen plays much the same character - a rebel - but with a much darker edge. Note the butcher knife he packs as part of his kit.


Here, McQueen is Private Reese, a soldier decorated for his bravery on the battlefied. But, either through struggling with the stress of combat or just not able to handle authority, he gets reprimanded for his actions behind the lines.

His latest posting reunites him with Sgt. Pike (Fess Parker). The pair served together in North Africa. Pike knows what his comrade can do on the battlefield and cuts him a little slack for his behaviour away from the front line.


Pike's men think they're heading back home when wrapping up their furlough in France in 1944. But, they're ordered to return to combat. Worse, only a small number are left to defend part of the American line against a larger German force. About a half-dozen men will be on their own for a day, two or maybe more.

Here's where things get interesting.

The GIs cook up ways to make the Germans think there's more American soliders defending the area.

A jeep and the mechanical talents of Cpl. Henshaw (Coburn) are pressed into service. A lost clerk, Pvt. Driscoll (Bob Newhart), shows up. Newhart broke through with audiences in the early 1960s as a comic who wrote clever one-way phone conversations in comedy clubs. What endeared him to audiences is pressed into service here. It's some comic relief in an otherwise tense film.

Reese knows the Germans will eventually find out just how few Americans are in the area. He decides to take out a dominating machine gun tucked inside a concrete pillbox to help prevent an overwhelming attack.

With much of the film shot during the night, director Don Siegel brings to life several intense combat sequences. The violence isn't as graphic as Saving Private Ryan, but many of these soldiers don't just fall over and die.

Most riveting is the death of one of the American soldiers. The scene is shot from above as he's carried to possible medical help.


Pop singer Bobby Darin has a strong supporting role as Pvt. Corby, a scrounger who is eager to make a good from loot he's taken for his own use.

My only caveat is the stock footage used in a couple of scenes. That detracts from what is otherwise a strong Second World War film.

Robert Pirosh, who helped write the screenplay, was the series developer of Combat, an American war series starring the late Vic Morrow that aired from 1963 to 1967.

I stumbled upon this film in a bargain rack at a music store. It was well worth the $5 purchase price.

McQueen, who already appeared in The Blog and The Magnificient Seven, would see his star rise even higher in the 1960s with Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. But boy, he is scary good in Hell Is For Heroes.

Rating: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Henry Guardino (Sgt. Larkin) worked with another screen icon, Clint Eastwood, in Dirty Harry and The Enforcer. Hell Is For Heroes was Newhart's film debut after starring in The Bob Newhart Show television series in 1961. Nick Adams (Homer Janeczek) appeared in two episodes of Combat! Pirosh was also a contributing writer on The Wizard of Oz. Fellow co-screenwriter Richard Carr penned scripts for several television series including Batman, Rawhide, Charlie's Angels, The Waltons, Wonder Woman and Six Million Dollar Man. Fess Parker starred as Davy Crockett in the hit television show from the 1950s. Read the Wikipedia posting of Hell Is For Heroes for interesting information about the film's production.

Marshall Torrill's Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel includes four pages about the film's production. Interesting facts from this biography include:

* McQueen clashed with director Robert Pirosh, who also wrote the film's script. Result: Pirosh was turfed and replaced with Don Siegel.

* Hell is for Heroes was shot in Redding, Calif., where temperatures hit as high as 117 F during filming.

* Director Stanley Kubrick called Hell is for Heroes "the best portrayal of a solitary soldier I have ever seen."

Two albums I enjoy listening to with war-related songs are from Genesis (Calling All Stations) and Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms).

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