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Film / Hell Is for Heroes

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Hell Is for Heroes is a 1962 World War II film directed by Don Siegel and co-written by Robert Pirosh. It was Siegel's only war film, and unfortunately his only collaboration with Steve McQueen, an actor whose rebellious persona jibed well with the director's vision; it puts the star in the familiar role of antihero. Also in the cast are Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Harry Guardino, Nick Adams, James Coburn, and Bob Newhart. Pirosh, who also wrote Battleground (1949), would go on to write much of the series Combat!, which is stylistically similar to this film.

1944: John Reese (McQueen) is an embittered G.I. who has just been sent back to join his war-weary infantry unit holding down a position opposite a pillbox on the Siegfried Line in France. Recently demoted back to private from staff sergeant for drinking, Reese chafes under all authority, and is a pariah to his fellow grunts despite their awareness of his extraordinary courage in battle. A natural leader, he persuades his squad leader to implement a plan he's formulated to keep the Germans at bay by making them believe that the small outfit is larger than it is. While this is temporarily effective, Reese knows it's only a matter of time before the enemy discovers the truth, and takes it on his own authority to lead an attack on the well-defended pillbox, although his unit has been assigned only to hold their ground.

Hell is for Heroes provides examples of the following:

  • Anyone Can Die: Invoked more strongly than most war movies of its era.
  • Backup Bluff: The main plot thread, with a handful of American soldiers trying to fool a German unit into thinking they have more people than they actually do.
  • Blood Knight: Reese goes a little "crazy" when not in combat.
  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: The Americans discover that their camp is bugged, and fake a Newhart Phonecall with some false information to make it seem like they're waiting for orders rather than taking action.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Shot entirely in black and white, probably to make use of stock footage.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: Starts off as a story about a colorful group of American soldiers in the French countryside, then finishes as a gritty, intense combat film.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Reese is mortally wounded charging the pillbox, so he throws the satchel charge in himself.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Played straight in some scenes, but averted in others, out of necessity, since the weather was so hot they had to wait until nightfall to shoot.
  • Newhart Phonecall: Done in-universe by Bob Newhart himself in his earliest film role, based on his standup routines. Driscoll pretends to radio command to fool the Germans, who planted a bug in an abandoned pillbox.
  • No Ending: The film ends mid-battle, after the climactic Heroic Sacrifice, allegedly because the No Budget production ran out of money.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Invoked in the scenes with Germans, plus when Kolinsky talks to Homer in Polish.
  • The Scrounger: Corby, who carries various bits of contraband on his belt and charges inflated prices for them.
  • Shaped Like Itself: One of Driscoll's one-sided radio conversations includes the line "the men are complaining about the vichyssoise. They say it tastes like potato soup," before his imaginary conversation partner presumably explains that vichyssoise is potato (and leek) soup.
  • Stock Footage: The artillery and the machine gun crew inside the pillbox.
  • The Team Wannabe: Homer, a young Polish man who hangs out with the American soldiers partly for company and partly because he wants to go the United States with them when they go home.
  • War Is Hell: The general tone of the film, alluded to in the title.