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Hell is For Heroes

By 1962, Steve McQueen had earned a reputation as being an arrogant, difficult star. He was an actor who had to control every aspect of whatever film he was working on, if he was to be in it at all, and his stubbornness was only surpassed by his talent. Director Don Siegel was soon to find out exactly how obstinate McQueen could be to work with on Hell Is for Heroes (1962); he also found that the only way to deal with the young actor and win his respect was to go toe-to-toe with him.

Based on a true event, Hell Is for Heroes centers around a small squad of GIs in l944 who must maintain a position against a hugely superior German force until reinforcements can arrive. The only hope for maintaining their position is to use their wits and try to deceive the enemy as long as possible. This means creating the impression, through sound effects and other gimmicks, that their battalion is a large outfit.

Screenwriter Robert Pirosh had fleshed out the story in the mid-'50s, but when McQueen didn't like Pirosh's treatment of it, the studio sent the writer packing. Soon McQueen was butting heads with Marty Rackin, a Paramount studio exec, writer Carr, and everyone else in earshot until he turned his attention to director Don Siegel. Siegel let the actor know in no uncertain terms that his name would be the one on the credits as the director, despite McQueen's autocratic ideas. The two men nearly came to blows at that meeting, and several times during production as well.

The end result, though, was a low-budget masterpiece, a strong antiwar statement by Siegel the director and McQueen the star playing an antisocial loner. Hell Is for Heroes shares a common thread with other Siegel films such as Madigan (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), a recurring theme where the line between hero and antihero becomes so blurred as to be nearly irrelevant. In Don Siegel's moral universe, there are seldom absolutes and every issue is painted in varying shades of gray. Hell Is for Heroes is directed with Siegel's typical toughness and narrative economy, perfectly suited for McQueen's terse, monosyllabic approach to acting.

Hell Is for Heroes was filmed in Redding, California, in the summer, with temperatures reaching as high as ll7 degrees. Since the actors were fitted out in heavy GI battle dress, Siegel decided to do the principal filming at night, which was one of his best creative decisions. The night shooting adds greatly to the movie's bitter tone and desperate feel. True to form, McQueen remained willful and difficult to deal with; one scene called for the actor to break into tears as he is walking towards the camera. For take after take, he remained dry-eyed; the director tried blowing onion juice in his face, to no avail, and even resorted to slapping McQueen as hard as he could. Eventually, they compromised and used eye drops that ran down the actor's face for the shot.

Though McQueen stands out as the movie's centerpiece, the supporting cast is also excellent, with Nick Adams as a homesick Polish expatriate, Fess Parker and L.Q. Jones as war-weary NCOs, and Bob Newhart (in his film debut) as a misfit private who serves as comic relief. The film's comic non sequitur involves Newhart finding a bugged phone line and carrying on a lengthy monologue for the benefit of the German eavesdroppers. Delivered in the typical halting fashion that has become a Newhart staple, the scene is in direct contrast to the rest of the film's grim trajectory.

While overshadowed by McQueen's other WWII dramas from the period (The Great Escape, 1963, and The War Lover, 1962), Hell Is for Heroes remains an intense and tightly constructed antiwar film with strong direction and solid performances all around. Siegel perhaps said it best himself: "I would never make a war picture unless it was strongly antiwar. No side wins a war. How hypocritical warring nations are. Both sides have their priests and ministers pray to the same God for victory. War is senseless and futile. It is true that hell is for heroes. It is equally true that for heroes there is only hell."

Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Richard Carr, Robert Pirosh
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Howard Richmond
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Costume Design: Wally Harton
Film Editing: Howard A. Smith
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Principal Cast: Steve McQueen (Pvt. Reese), Bobby Darin (Pvt. Corby), Fess Parker (Sgt. Pike), Nick Adams (Homer), Harry Guardino (Sgt. Larkin), Mike Kellin (Pvt. Kolinsky), James Coburn (Cpl. Henshaw), L.Q. Jones (Sgt. Frazer), Bob Newhart (Pvt. Driscoll), Don Haggerty (Cpt. Mace).
BW-90m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.

by Jerry Renshaw VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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