Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Remembering "Hills Are For Heroes"

One way in my mother and I learned to bond during my sullen teenage years was through her favourite television program - a 1960s action series set in World War II called Combat. You can't make up this sort of thing.

It took a long time for me to come around to Combat's charms, but since my mother seemed to be videotaping and/or watching the show every other evening, I had plenty of opportunities for exposure. One of the first episodes I recall truly enjoying was "Duel," in which leading character Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) battled a tank with nothing more than his gun and a large dose of ingenuity. It's a great action program - roughly 45 minutes of thrills and tension as Saunders makes various attempts to overcome the tank. It's also very sparse on dialogue.

I would hesitate to call "Duel" representative of Combat. Although almost every episode contains action of some kind or another - occasionally very fanciful win-the-war-single-handed type of stories - the bulk of the series seemed to concern clashes of personalities: the G.I. who's cracking up, the coward who needs to come to terms, the enemy who has to be trusted, the grunt who has to perform tasks outside of his skill set, the loner with a terrible secret. Yes, there were bullets, grenades, shells and (budget permitting) tanks, but the series was as much a character drama as an action programmer. That character drama I found so distasteful as a youngster? That became the reason to check it out as a teen.

I recall one night I was alone while the rest of the family were out and I was supervising the nightly recording of Combat. The episode in the docket was called "Hills Are For Heroes, Part 1." I began the night working on a crossword puzzle (strange that I recall that detail so clearly 20 years later) but the episode itself drew me in.

When I think of the war movies I've enjoyed I'm quick to name many of the usual suspects: All Quiet on the Western Front, Glory, Gettysburg, Letters From Iwo Jima, the Great Escape and so forth; but I often append my list with "and the Combat two-parter 'Hills Are For Heroes.'"

It isn't simply the double-length of this story which places it amongst the feature films in my mind; there's an artistry in these episodes (directed by Vic Morrow himself) which you didn't normally see on the series. The setting: a wide open valley with two German pillboxes set atop hills which have a perfect view of the road below. The soldiers' mission: to eradicate the Germans in the pillboxes so the road can be captured. The commanding officers - represented for most of the two-parter by series star Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason) repeat themselves again and again: take that hill.

Unfortunately, the Germans' vantage is far superior to the meager troops; in the opening minutes of the two-parter, the squad suffers terrible casualties in their first attempt, with Sgt. Saunders among the wounded. They receive help from artillery, but it isn't heavy enough to actually damage the pillboxes; they have a heavy machine gun, but it's near-suicidal to try and get close enough to use it. At one point a tank aids them; even this isn't enough. Even after the first failed attempt, the squad's spirits are broken; the repeated efforts only add to their frustration as some of them are on the verge of mutiny.

Saunders being sidelined with an injury is, in part, done to limit the amount of time Morrow had to spend in front of the camera; being an on-location shoot, there would have been a lot of demands on him as the director. However, it's used as a strength in the story - Saunders' injury doesn't only relieve the squad of one of their most important men, but of the one who is most likely to ameliorate the problems between Hanley and his subordinates; ordinarily, Saunders would be present in episodes to make Hanley's orders more palatable to the men, to lead them personally into battle and, generally, to win the day; Saunders' absence for most of the two-parter warns Combat fans immediately this will not be business as usual.

With Saunders out of the way, the other cast members (not credited as stars yet appearing in virtually every episode) are given a lot of opportunities to shine, especially the squad's B.A.R. man, Kirby (Jack Hogan). Frequently used in the series as a brash loudmouth (you could institute a drinking game based on the repeated line "Shut up, Kirby!"), Kirby goes up the hill more times than any of the other characters in this story; he's also forced to assume some command responsibilities as Hanley orders him to pick the men who will accompany him, knowing some of them will die (and so they do). Sometimes in the series, Kirby's tirades can be viewed as back-talking from someone outside of the command structure - the freedom of the lower ranks to complain. Here, Kirby seems to feel the weight of his position, not only to be asked to give his life in what seems to be an impossible mission, but to choose which other lives will be spent. At one point, Kirby's friend Littlejohn suggests taking his place and Kirby refuses, noting he has the right skills for the job and Littlejohn doesn't. It points to how Kirby is able to rationalize risking his life, but not those of his squad mates.

Throughout the two-parter, Kirby unleashes a steady stream of angry complaints about the assignment, yet keeps trying to accommodate Hanley. In the climax, the hill is finally won, yet - in a very cruel turn - they're ordered to fall back because the Germans had counterattacked their forces at another position. Kirby's exhausted, furious response sums up the entire story:

"No! We took this hill! This man here, I-I don't even know his name! He can't come down! Einstein can't come down! And Morgan, he can't either! We ain't comin' down, lieutenant, we took this hill!"

There are certain tricks in this episode which point to Morrow's ability as a director - the sort of tricks you tend to see young filmmakers trying out when they're eager to impress people. The most obvious comes near the end of part 1, when one of the soldiers is shot: the sound of battle fades and dulls out as he falls backwards down the hills in slow motion; the camera switches perspective to depict his viewpoint as he rolls; when his friend comes up, his words are heard in a deep slur; at the moment the camera resumes its normal view and normal audio, we realize the fallen man has died.

However, there's much more to Morrow as a director than simply that one bit of showiness. There's a terrific shot of Kirby, Caje & Littlejohn lying with their backs to a bunker wall with their feet in the focus of the foreground. The close-up of mud on Littlejohn's boots suggests how grimy and dirty this particular story is for the characters.

There's also something very interesting about the shooting location - simply a wide, grassy valley. This locale and the threat of merely two pillboxes is enough to sustain two episodes worth of tension! When you consider the many episodes of Combat involving elaborate sets over multiple stages, it's a testament to Morrow that this lifeless terrain is never bland. The characters and the situation hold the audience's interest throughout.

Is "Hills Are For Heroes" an anti-war story? Some Combat fans maintain that it is; I'm not completely convinced. It is definitely unusual fare for this series as, ordinarily, there is an expectation for the cast to triumph over their obstacles. Although episodes frequently required sacrifice, the characters' goals would be achieved, resolution would be found; that's flatly denied here. The characters are told over and over again to capture a hill; after more than a dozen deaths they succeed, then are told to turn back. There's a suggestion that the real obstacle facing our heroes was never the Germans at all - rather, it was the C.O. who was issuing them (including Hanley) orders. If you consider the C.O. to be the true antagonist of "Hills Are For Heroes," then you're right, this is an anti-war story.

But, recall, this two-parter aired in 1966! This is unusually bleak fare for a prime-time series surrounded by toothpaste and deodorant ads, but to a world which had actually lived through the war in recent memory and to which All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, A Farewell to Arms, Paths of Glory and Catch-22 had already been written, this isn't exactly a blistering indictment of war by comparison. Here, Hanley must emphasize duty in the face of futility; Kirby rages at the seemingly heartless bureaucracy which wastes men's lives in the name of expediency. Still, there are enough small, heroic triumphs to make the bitter ending feel just cruel enough without asking the audience to question whether they would want to revisit the show the following week. Those books I listed state, "War is Hell." "Hills Are For Heroes" states "War is Messy."

And yet, when I saw "Hills Are For Heroes" I hadn't been exposed to any entertainment media which was the slightest bit critical of World War II. Twenty years ago, this two-parter broadened my mind juuust a little bit - pried it apart far enough that I could later understand Remarque, Trumbo, et al. I sat down again with "Hills Are For Heroes" last night to mark Remembrance Day. It still holds up.

"All right, remember that hill: every ditch and every dip in the ground. It may come in handy the next time."

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