Private John Reese (Steve McQueen), a decorated combat hero recently broken in rank,
joins up with a battalion slated to return to the states.
It's a smooth-running unit: the tough Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) fills in when fair-minded
Sergeant Pike (Fess Parker) is absent. Private J.J. Corby wheels and deals in everything from
silver place settings to ball-point pens. Corporal Henshaw (James Coburn) is a compulsive
tinkerer. And Polish-born Private Kolinsky (Mike Kellin) takes care of Homer (Nick Adams),
a displaced Polish kid escaped from a German work camp. The platoon is ordered instead to
return to the front, where it is practically abandoned to hold a line far too wide for such
a small force. But various ruses make the Germans think they're still at full strength.
Additional help comes when lost clerk typist Private James E. Driscoll (Bob Newhart) wanders in
and is made a combat soldier for the day. Things go well until nightfall, when
a German attack motivates Pvt. Reese to try for an enemy machine-gun implacement, if
only to keep the Germans from realizing how few soldiers they're facing. But Larkin is
furious that Reese should take such an initiative ... and Reese is a hair-trigger away from
shooting his own superior.
Hell is for Heroes is one of McQueen's tougher tough-guy roles. Combat movies had been
becoming increasingly escapist in 1961, even McQueen's own Never So Few for Sinatra. Using
just a few trucks, a jeep, and lots of gunpowder, this was a cut-down affair designed for the
actors and not Army recruiting production value. Don Siegel was relentlessly
efficient, as proven on a series of truly cheap and mostly forgettable movies he'd recently
finished for Columbia. Hell is for Heroes' sharp script and taut direction put some
sting back in Hollywood combat.
Low-budget 'lost patrol' movies had become message films by the end of the '50s. Stanley
Kramer had started it off with his Home of the Brave, which was about a small group of
soldiers - and race relations. Robert Aldrich's Attack! was about a small group of
soldiers - and enlisted men shooting their own officers in self defense. Anthony Mann's
Men in War mined every combat cliché there was, and had the nerve to quote Lewis
Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front's most famous scene. Milestone quoted
himself in Pork Chop Hill, but his reactionary message for the Korean war was not that
boys shouldn't be fighting, but that politics was making a winnable war an incompetent killing field.
Siegel and writers Pirosh and Carr dropped all agendas not immediately related to survival in a
foxhole - Hell is for Heroes is first-person combat freed from politics or
thematic baggage. It's fairly modest in scope - not the 'all fighting, all the time' meatgrinder
of Bridge at Remagen, but focused and strongly-felt. Even action heroes McQueen and
Coburn look mighty frazzled in the fighting. McQueen is so natural in roles like this - deprived
for a moment of his weapon, he throws his helmet at a German soldier - and you see his tension
build steadily, unbearably.
Also, most of the usual melodramatic combat nonsense is dispensed with. Nobody passes around
pictures of his sweetheart, talks about the farm he's going to buy after the war, or reminisces
about his dog ... all clues for most war pictures that the speaker is soon to be killed.
McQueen's own The War Lover was so bad about this that it now plays as an unintentional
comedy. Yes, the members of this platoon are somewhat typed, but none of them are afforded
the luxury of standard dramatic closure.
Ambitious actor Nick Adams does a great job in the character role as a young Pole, and is almost
unrecognizeable from his usual attention-grabbing self. Harry Guardino (later at his
best in Siegel's Madigan) is top-notch, and James Coburn plays a surprisingly low-key
character. Bob Newhart's presence is a blatant commercial gesture to provide some light
relief. Audiences knew him as that 'button-down' standup comic, and he's even identified
as such in the trailer. Thankfully, even when put to work doing 'telephone routines',
Newhart doesn't harm the tone.
Hell is for Heroes sees combat as a merciless, unending grind of violence and killing, and
manages a very progressive ending, one which fairly daringly refuses to resolve several of the
characters, or the battle itself. McQueen's caustic loner does his best,
gets a raw deal, and tries to compensate with a near-suicidal effort. This is one of the
better war films.
Paramount's DVD of Hell is for Heroes is as spare and functional as the film itself.
The clean b&w image is 16:9 enhanced, which helps a lot when the soldiers become small figures
isolated amid the darkness of the battlefield. The mono sound is strong but is not going
to compete with more modern mixes. I only remember Leonard Rosenman's martial music being
over the titles and credits. Besides the effective trailer, there are no other extras.
This one has been left to sail on Steve McQueen's image alone - and that will probably be
enough to ensure success.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell is for Heroes rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 21, 2001