Release Date(s)1962 (April 11, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
The Steve McQueen war film Hell Is for Heroes (1962), directed by Don Siegel, has many good and bad points. Probably the overriding first reaction is disappointment in McQueen, the iconic, charismatic movie star who is completely charmless and humorless here. Partly it’s the character he plays, but once seen it comes as no surprise that McQueen wanted nothing to do with the film, driving away screenwriter (and war movie expert) Robert Pirosh, who was set to produce and direct until butting heads with McQueen.
Pirosh’s replacement, Siegel, fared little better, McQueen arguing with the veteran filmmaker constantly about anything and everything. Electrifying as he usually was onscreen, in his early starring career especially, behind the scenes McQueen was notoriously immature, moody, and combative, a reflection of basic insecurities which included an obsession to always be at the center of things. In Hell Is for Heroes, his petulance poured out into his very performance. Unlike his most memorable screen characters, this is definitely not one you’d want to hang out with.
The film has other problems, many of them related to Paramount’s lack of faith in the project. However, some of the performances are good, and there are flashes of cutting-edge grittiness and verisimilitude, rare for a 1962 Hollywood film, which play like a warm-up to Sam Fuller’s later, much superior The Big Red One (1980).
Some months after D-Day, in Montigny, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino) and his squad expect to be shipped back state-side soon and are in good spirits but Platoon Sgt. Pike (Fess Parker) has bad news: the men are instead being sent up to the front lines yet again, and things go from bad to worse when these half-dozen men are ordered to hold the line against a major German offensive all by themselves, to create the impression they’re a much larger force until relief arrives.
Larkin’s men include scrounger Corby (Bobby Darin), mechanic Henshaw (James Coburn), youthfully optimistic Cumberly (Bill Mullikin), and family man Kolinsky (Mike Kellin). Before departing they’re joined by Pvt. John Reese (McQueen), a former master sergeant demoted after a court martial, who has a harder time adjusting to the pause between battles than during actual fighting. Displaced Polish civilian Homer Janeczek (Nick Adams) sneaks up to the front lines to join them, and later Pvt. 1st Class Driscoll (Bob Newhart, in his film debut), a company clerk with no battle experience, also turns up after getting lost.
Newhart is one of the film’s many concessions to popular appeal. His comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a huge, unexpected hit, winning Album of the Year at the 1961 Grammy Awards and becoming the 20th best-selling album of all-time, according to Billboard. The scripts rather shamelessly and awkwardly finds room for Newhart to effectively perform a long comic monologue in between characters getting blown up.
Immediately after Hell Is for Heroes Pirosh, whose screenwriting credits include the fine war movies Battleground (1949) and Go for Broke! (1951), segued to television as the creator of Combat! (1962-67). Hell Is for Heroes plays very much like an extended Combat! episode, and has that same G.I. Joe, studio backlot television look. Further, Paramount had so little faith in the picture they effectively pulled the plug while it was still in production, though the finished film shows little evidence of this. But it does look modest.
Clearly, the film was conceived as more an ensemble piece, the root of McQueen’s biggest gripes. In what was almost certainly a move by the actor, for most of the film he wears a light-colored jacket with no military insignia over his uniform, an obvious breach of regulations. What it does, however, is make McQueen stand out, visually, the viewer’s eyes naturally drawn to him.
Though McQueen doesn’t come off too well—Is this really the same actor who so dazzled us in The Great Escape the following year?—many of the other performers do just fine. Guardino is particularly authentic as their sergeant, and Fess Parker comes off very naturalistic—Could he play scenes any other way?—as Guardino’s superior. McQueen’s frequent co-star from the period, James Coburn, comes off better than McQueen by underplaying everything and donning a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
The film has two soldier deaths that, while not graphic onscreen, are gruesome by suggestion. In one, a soldier is killed by mortar fire, the implication that his face and torso are mostly gone. As the others look on, horrified (with nicely subtle variations), McQueen has the frozen expression of determination not to reveal he’s as shocked as everyone else. It’s the only noteworthy bit of real acting he does in the picture. The second death is unusual in that the fatally wounded soldier screams bloody murder before finally expiring, in excruciating pain and aware of imminent death shouting instructions to his comrades. Both scenes are unnerving and the actors pull them off honestly.
Yet, for every effective moment in Hell Is for Heroes there are ineffective, even ludicrous ones. The most outrageous example of the latter comes early on, when McQueen goes AWOL to drink at a French bar, where the middle-aged bar-hostess unsubtly tries to seduce him. She strokes the neck of a bottle of wine lovingly, stopping just short of giving it a blowjob. The symbolism is so absurdly blatant it’s incredible the Production Code somehow missed it. No doubt adults seeing it when it was new got the message, and in 2023 it’s just ludicrous, almost parody.
Kino’s Blu-ray, licensed from Paramount who did a 4K scan of the original camera negative, looks flawless, the black-and-white 1.85:1 widescreen image looking razor-sharp with inky blacks. Only the handful of process shots look less than perfect. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also very good for what it is, and optional English subtitles are provided on this Region “A” disc.
In addition to a hard-sell trailer (2:55), there’s a very informative audio commentary by historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin, who know their stuff.
Hell Is for Heroes is definitely a mixed bag, with battlefield verisimilitude jumbled in with phony Hollywood concessions, and a leading player whose displeasure with his part unfortunately spills over into his performance. Still, recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV