Director: Don Siegel
Starring: Steve McQueen, Fess Parker, Bobby Darin, James Coburn
At the Siegfried Line in European World War II, a single squad of US soldiers holds a wide swath of the front against German forces.
It’s rare that I sit down to a movie with no expectations, but that’s what happened with Hell is for Heroes. I knew next to nothing about the movie, other than it was old, starred Steve McQueen, and was about World War II. The first thing that struck me was that the cast is a fascinating collection of actors. Many of these actors would go on to have storied acting careers, and you get to see them in military roles that some of them would never repeat. The nostalgia factor with this movie is sky high, if you’re a fan of Hollywood history.
Action-movie star Steve McQueen is the marquee name, of course, and he does a convincing job as Reese, a talented yet rebellious GI. But there are notable others: James Coburn, who would go on to a long and illustrious acting career; singer Bobby Darin; Fess Parker, who would play Daniel Boone for five years in the like-named TV series; and comedian Bob Newhart, who began his long four-decade acting career with this part.
But nostalgia will only get you so far. Hell is for Heroes has to be evaluated on its quality as an action movie. In this regard, the movie is a mixed bag of the good and the bland, with the bland overpowering the good in many areas. Let’s start with the bland…
This is a more of a war drama than it is an action movie. This is not necessarily a negative, but Hell is for Heroes is not a particularly compelling war drama. It starts slow, with some ultimately meaningless character-introduction scenes. When the troops finally get to the front, the creators—perhaps to save money—rig a situation where a single squad is lined up to defend a wide section of the US front line for a couple of days. The middle of the movie then consists of this single squad trying to trick the Germans into thinking there are many more Americans on the front than there actually are. This is sometimes entertaining, but in many ways I felt like the movie is treading water here. The tricks and ruses aren’t particularly interesting, nor is there an accurate portrayal of the tension one would expect in such a situation. For a movie that is trying to depict war in a realistic and hellish fashion, it doesn’t quite get there.
Ironically, one of the reasons the movie fails in conveying the tension of the front lines is also one of the movie’s highlights. Bob Newhart plays a bumbling staff headquarters typist who accidentally drives to the front lines and gets “volunteered” to stay with the squad at the front. His parts are fairly humorous, and if you have seen some of the shows from his long running sitcoms, you’ll crack up to see him do one of his famous phone routines from the inside of a pillbox. This is entertaining content, to be sure, but ultimately completely out of place in a movie that is trying so hard to show us the reality of war.
A better story, more elegant character development, and a more polished script would have helped Hell is for Heroes as well. We have a decent sub-plot, with Steve McQueen playing a rebel’s role that poses questions about leadership, obedience, and bravery in war, but it’s nothing particularly thought provoking or original.
Because of these weaknesses, the first two-thirds of the movie feels somewhat like listening to a warm-up band at a rock concert. It might be decent entertainment, but it’s not why you’re there, and you hope there is better stuff coming.
Finally, however, the action picks up. We get an above average skirmish between the US soldiers and a German patrol. Following this, there is a moderately tense scene where McQueen leads two other soldiers on a daring nighttime mission to destroy a German pillbox. And we then arrive at the climactic battle, which—considering when it was made—does an admirable job of portraying a medium-size World War II engagement. Explosions are well done, the pace is quick, and the construction of the scenes is tight.
Even the improved back third of the movie does have flaws, however. In the patrol skirmish, we get several Germans doing the blindingly stupid “run straight at the enemy so they can shoot us” move typical of older Hollywood war movies. In the final battle, soldiers often get shot from angles where no enemy could be, and there are many somersaulting death rolls that look downright silly. The ending is fairly abrupt, although it does wrap up the movie well enough.
Lastly, the babe factor in this movie is so low that there was no way I could fit a comment on it into this review without tacking on this complete non-sequitur of a paragraph. We do get one brief scene with Steve McQueen in a French bar with a female bartender, but there is nothing to see here. From a female perspective, the cast is strong and handsome, but most of the time they are buried in army gear and donning helmets. Not much to see from this side of the fence either.
Overall, this movie doesn’t make it over the 50-point mark, although I recommend it if you would like to catch a nostalgic view of some of the stars of the 1960s and 1970s, or if you are an ardent fan of war movies.
In one of the more curious linguistic decisions in movie history, the German artillery barrages during the final battle are launched with German voices saying “Achtung, Fire!” over and over. Huh?
Consistent Premise: 90
Body Count: 38
Time to First Dead Body: Slow
Special Effects: 33
Overall: 41 (Only for true War Movie Fans)