Steve McQueen turned in one memorable performance after another. Films like The Sand Pebbles and The Great Escape and Bullitt come to mind as frequent mentions as the King of Cool's most iconic roles (and rightfully so. They're gems). But how about an underrated performance that doesn't get its due? I've always thought 1962's Hell is For Heroes belonged in McQueen's best performance list. What do you think?
It's 1944 in France along the Siegfried Line and rumors are spreading that troops will be heading home soon. As the infantry waits, Private John Reese (McQueen) arrives as a replacement for an already undermanned squad commanded by Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino) with the platoon led by Sgt. Pike (Fess Parker). The troops aren't going home though. They're being sent back on the line. Larkin's squad is in for a surprise though. The entire company was moved in during the night, but many of the men were pulled back during the night and relocated up the line to serve as a reserve for an expected German counterattack. What's that mean for Larkin's squad? The sergeant and his five men, including Reese, must hold an extended portion of the line until reinforcements can arrive. Can they? What if the Germans catch on to who they're actually facing off against?
I think this is one of the best, most underrated war films ever made. It is rarely mentioned in conversations of great war films, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. Director Don Siegel -- one of the all-timers at tough guy flicks -- helms a low-budget (but never in a bad way) war story that genuinely tries to show the horrors of war on a more personal level. This isn't armies clashing over territory. This is a half-dozen tired American soldiers simply trying to survive against overwhelming odds and in spite of idiotic orders. There's no picture of the war or fighting on a grand scale. We're in the trenches and foxholes with the soldiers who are interested in getting some sleep, eating some good food and not being shot at for a change.
What's always appealed to me about Siegel's film is the stark, bleak look. 'Heroes' is filmed in black and white, an excellent decision that helps focus the story more on the soldiers and their bleak situation with little in the way of distraction. Much of the story is focused then on a stretch of line marked with trenches, dugouts, bombed-out pillboxes, dragon's teeth, foxholes and all the remnants of previous fighting littering the ground. Across the line a few hundred yards, the German infantry -- mostly unseen -- waits like a presence just waiting to strike. An obvious impact on TV's Combat!, 'Heroes' has a memorable look, Siegel not undone by his relatively small budget. Throw in a wartime score from Leonard Rosenman -- not used often, highly effective when used -- that's moody and dark and scene-setting and you've got all the ingredients! Watch the opening/closing credits HERE for a sample.
The thing holding it all together though is McQueen's performance as Private John Reese, a brutally efficient soldier and fighter who's most effective in combat. Once removed from the fighting, he starts to get in trouble. This is a performance built on such an intimidating presence that McQueen was supposedly incredibly difficult to work with on-set, rarely getting out of character. His physical appearance is gaunt with several day-old stubble on his face. For lack of a better description, Reese is a psychopath, albeit an incredibly capable soldier. One of the earliest method actors, McQueen radiates intensity and rage here like few performances I've ever seen. He barely speaks and when he does, he's short, quick and to the point. But my goodness, it is a highly memorable performance, one tortured individual who is most at home when the bullets are flying through the air and death is ever-present. One of my first thoughts when watching The Hurt Locker was that Jeremy Renner's character could have been Reese's son! What a performance from McQueen.
The entire ensemble is a strong one with McQueen leading the way. Fess Parker is solid as Pike, the tough sergeant trying to hold his men together even considering the hellish fighting they've been through. Larkin too is a capable soldier, Guardino doing a fine job of showing his unease at what he likely should do and what he's been ordered to do. His squad includes James Coburn as Henshaw, a mechanical genius, Bobby Darin as Corby, a scrounger always ready with a joke/quip, Mike Kellin as Kolinsky, the worrier, and Bill Mullikin as Cumberly, the cheery soldier with a positive outlook. The squad gets unlikely reinforcements in the form of Bob Newhart's Pvt. Driscoll, a typist who finds himself at the front line, and Nick Adams as Homer, a young Polish man who tags along with the squad. Also look for Joseph Hoover as Capt. Loomis, the company commander, and L.Q. Jones appearing very briefly as a supply sergeant.
This is one of the earliest examples of a real look at war I can think of. Sure, Darin has some jokes and Newhart briefly gets to do a telephone bit, but the message of the story is the absolute horror of war. There's nothing glamorous or glorifying about it. It's men killing men in horrific fashion. 'Heroes' is interested in small unit pictures, squad vs. squad, as we see some of the ruses Larkin's men use to trick the Germans into thinking there's far more of them than there really is. When the violence and gunfire erupts, it's quick, unsettling and vicious. Characters die in truly uncomfortable ways that isn't just "Bang...You're Dead." One characters screams "My guts! My guts! Don't tell my wife it was like this!" as he bleeds out before a medic arrives. Generally forgotten, 'Heroes' was one of the first to show war as it really was, laying the groundwork for many future war films.
Take this next part with a grain of salt (I'm not sure how true it is), but I've read Siegel simply ran out of money late in filming and the studio didn't give him anymore. What's next? An improvised ending that is actually one of the most memorable, startling endings I've ever seen. It stays in tune with the movie's general downbeat tone with no happy endings in sight. What I've always wondered then is this...what was the original ending if there was more of a budget? I'm still searching for that answer! In the meantime, it's an excellent movie, one that deserves far more of a reputation among war movie fans. It's a gem.
Hell is For Heroes (1962): ****/****
Rewrite of December 2010 review