movie review: hell is for heroes

“Hell Is For Heroes” is a World War II drama where the action centers around a single maneuver by a squad of GIs in retaliation against the force of the German Siegfried line. Reese joins a group of weary GIs unexpectedly ordered back into the line when on their way to a rest area. While most of the men withdraw from their positions facing a German pillbox at the far side of a mine-field, half a dozen men are left to protect a wide front. By various ruses, they manage to convince the Germans that a large force is still holding the position.


Despite what all the critics say, I do love this movie.  (Not to mention what the actors themselves thought.  I recently read that none of the cast thought HIFH was going anywhere fast, and every day one or more of them would approach the director and ask for their character to be killed off so they could go work on other projects.  I guess that’s why about half the characters die by the time the film is over.)  Sorry.  Rabbit trail there.  To get back to what I said about loving HIFH, the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s one of my absolute favorite war movies (so my list of ‘top five favorite war films’ is already obsolete).  It’s not some grand, sprawling epic by any stretch, and I think that’s part of why I like it so much.  HIFH focuses on a tiny sliver of the war, in an intensely human way, and because of that, it’s easy to get very attached to both the film and the characters.

Which I have.  Of course.  Because that’s simply what I do with movies like this one.

One thing I can’t leave out mentioning about HIFH is the marked similarity it bears to the TV show Combat!, mainly in mood and tone, probably because the screenplay was written by Robert Pirosh, who also created C!.  Like C!, it focuses on the individual lives affected by the war, not really shining the spotlight on the larger, strategic picture.  The fact that HIFH was shot in b&w helps, of course, along with the score which is composed by the same person (Leonard Rosenman) who did the music for C!.  And there also happen to be three different cast members who also guest starred in different C! episodes – JAMES COBURN, Nick Adams, and Mike Kellin.  Overall, it’s very satisfying to watch, as a C! fan (a blogging friend said that HIFH feels like one long episode of C! that just happened not to deal with the main cast, and I completely agree), although the film stands out well in its own right too.

The characters: You have to forgive me for not liking Steve McQueen for the longest time, because HIFH was the only film I’d seen him in until very recently, and his character, Reese, is for the most part, unlikable to the extreme.  I read that McQueen hated the film and didn’t think the character of Reese fit him at all (I’m not sure if I agree with him on that, although I will say that Reese is very different from the three other characters I’ve seen McQueen play), so I don’t think it took much acting on his part to portray the surly, taciturn, angry Reese.  There are, however, a whole slew of other great characters – so great, in fact, that I don’t think I can pick a favorite.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Fess Parker (as Pike) is HIFH, because he plays the main character in The Great Locomotive Chase, which I happen to like very much.  All the times that Pike tried to be friendly with Reese made me smile because he just wouldn’t give up.

Corby (Bobby Darin) is great…a really darling, fun (and funny) character.  And Driscoll (Bob Newhart – in his screen debut) was hilarious.  Mom knew more about him than I did, and she really enjoyed his little phone conversation scenes, which provided a nice change from all the tension and death and characters with bad attitudes (well, more like just one character *wink*).  (And not that I mind tension and death in war films.)  Larkin (Harry Guardino) was one of my favorite characters.  Very level-headed, and someone who didn’t back down from giving Reese a good chewing out when it was necessary.  Mike Kellin (Kolinsky) weirded me out just a little at first, because I’m so used to see him as Jackson in “Losers Cry Deal”, where he’s an antagonist, so having my brain reverse gears and think of him in a better light was difficult.  The re-watch was much better, in that regard.  And you really can’t talk about Kolinsky without mentioning Homer (Nick Adams) who’s very swiftly rising up my favorite characters list.  Sure, he’s sometimes used as a bit of comic relief, but he can be serious too, which I appreciate.  (And the part at the end where he goes berserk, during the final battle, always makes me tear up.)

Goodness, this list goes on and on, doesn’t it?  There’s just a couple more characters to mention, though – Cumberly (Bill Mullikin) and Henshaw (James Coburn).  I don’t really feel like I know all that much about Cumberly, not like how I got to know practically every other character so well.  He was optimistic and happy, and actually very like Morgan from “Hills Are For Heroes”.  And then Henshaw.  I LOVE HENSHAW.  I believe HIFH was the first thing I watched where I actually liked James Coburn’s role (well, duh, of course it was, because the only other thing I’d seen him in thus far was a Combat! episode where he played a [very interesting] baddie), although at first I didn’t know it was the same guy because of the glasses.  Glasses always throw me – in my mind, they can completely change anyone’s looks.  Anyway.  Henshaw’s a great mechanic, can do practically anything with any kind of vehicle, and handles The Flamethrower.  So…very, very epic.  (It always makes me grin when Reese ignores Henshaw’s attempt at a handshake at the beginning of HIFH because “You guys are going to do more epic movies together and become great buddies!” – that is, if they weren’t good friends already.)

I don’t really know what else to say.  The story is simple, interesting, and tense, with delightful dashes of humour here and there.  The characters are, for the most part, wonderful.  The casualty count is high – out of ten main (sometimes main-ish) characters, five die.  HALF of them die.  HALF.  And the film ends in a rather ‘up in the air’ way (the first time I watched it and it said “The End”, I think I said “That CAN’T be the end!”.  A little more closure, please?).  As a small aside, I must say that the end credits are nifty…they really helped me straighten out what names belonged to what faces (both actor and character).  HIFH isn’t for the faint of heart (there are a couple somewhat disturbing death scenes), but as I like my movies deep and sometimes depressing, it worked well for me.

Have you ever seen Hell Is For Heroes?  What are your thoughts on it?



8 thoughts on “movie review: hell is for heroes

  1. I first saw Hell is for Heroes on the late movies many years ago. I knew nothing about it at the time but after seeing it, I have never forgotten it. I agree it is very much like a movie length version of TV’s Combat! – with the added benefit of not having the more restrictive censorship on violence TV shows of the era had to deal with.

    It’s hard to explain what makes this film so special. It has an authentic grim fatalism about it (particularly McQueen’s character) that seems to be lost in contemporary war films. A few years back, the UK music magazine Uncut did a retrospective review of the film and summed up the characters in this film as: “They are already dead and they know it”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness! You don’t know Fess Parker as Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone?

    (You called Bobby Darin’s character great, darling, fun, and funny. I want to hug you!)

    You’re right, it needs more closure. Write a fanfic story followup for it!

    I was going to say more, but you kind of already know I love this movie. Obviously. So I won’t. I love that you reviewed it!


    • I’ve *heard* that Fess Parker played both those characters, but I’ve never seen him in anything other than HIFH and The Great Locomotive Chase. 🙂

      (Aw, I know Bobby Darin a favorite with you, so I thought you’d enjoy reading my thoughts on Corby.)

      As for the fanfic idea – I’m considering it! I’m tearing my hair out over a piece of C! fan-fiction that’s refusing to work with me, but after I’ve finished revisions, I’ll see if I can figure out some kind of epilogue plot. (Problem is, so many great characters died that I want to write about. *sigh*) (Oh, and speaking of fan-fiction, I love how you captured Henshaw/James Coburn in the little scene he had in “What Goes Around”. So awesome.)

      Glad you liked my review – I usually have trouble writing my reviews, but this one flowed along perfectly, which was nice.


  3. I love how young Bob Newhart’s phone call scene foreshadows what would become a staple item in his stand-up. 🙂

    I thought the film authentically captured what I had read from real veterans about what war was like—long periods of bored tension, punctuated with raw violence and horror. And the Newhart scene is one of those little, strange moments of humor that helped make it all a bit more bearable.

    In tone, it felt more like a Vietnam movie than WWII movie, but that made sense given that it was made in the 60s. I wasn’t sure if I liked the tone when it was all said and done though, because WWII and Vietnam were two very different wars. (Not that I think the Vietnam War was evil or anything, it was just a lot messier than WWII.) But then I’m not sure you could portray any war in a blunt, unvarnished way without having someone interpret it as anti-war. I think the nihilistic approach was pretty obvious in this one though. I realize that the point is to give you a “worm’s eye view,” and these guys aren’t exactly the types to be philosophizing about all the lofty goals they’re fulfilling by their service. But it seems like the director is implying that wars are meaningless and wasteful across the board.

    I wonder if anyone’s ever made a WWII film that achieves that perfect balance between jingoism on one hand and nihilism on the other. I think The Great Escape does a great job balancing tone, but then again it’s more of a heist movie than a war movie.


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