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Hell is for Heroes

   

The same year that saw the release of The Longest Day (1962), possibly the most epic movie ever made about the most epic battle of the most frequently filmed war in history, also brought forth Don Siegel's ambivalent Hell Is for Heroes, which didn't focus on a famous battle but on an abandoned squadron of traumatized soldiers sent back to battle tired and under equipped. Shot on a quarter of the budget and entirely on this side of the Atlantic, Hell Is for Heroes sacrifices bombast and heroism for jokes and Weltschmerz. It has both the grit of Peckinpah's Cross of Iron (1977) and the levity of Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953), giving it the feeling of a nice thing that's been ruined, like a burnt cookie. But scrape off the charred edges and it's still sweet inside.

In Montigny, France in 1944, Squad Two is waiting to go home, but Sgt. Pike has a surprise: they're going back on the line. The squad is a scrappy bunch, differentiated by specialty and temperament like the world-weary POWs of La Grande Illusion (1937). Kolinsky speaks Polish, making him the de facto chaperone for a young Red Army defector; Henshaw, the four-eyed mechanic, can make a jeep sound like a tank to trick gullible Krauts; Corby runs the encampment's black market, displaying fancy pens in the lining of his coat; and Sgt. Larkin is a big-hearted hard-ass, keeping his men in line because he loves them. But Siegel doesn't like his protagonists to stay in line, as he would later prove beyond a doubt with his legality-flouting my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian archetype, "Dirty" Harry Callahan. Enter Pvt. Reese (Steve McQueen, more cadaverous and tight-lipped than you've ever seen him), demoted for stealing an officer's jeep but still untamed. He drinks stolen calvados like it's Gatorade and spews trench aphorisms like "Lady, the whole world's full of trouble" with so much gravel in his voice you could surface a driveway with it.

Often described as an antiwar movie, Hell Is for Heroes steers clear of systemic analysis and grand pronouncements. Sure, when Henshaw gets his eyes blown off by a landmine, when Kolinsky gets his guts shredded by machine gun fire, and when Reese suicide-bombs a German pillbox that survives the blast and keeps raining bullets on his comrades, we feel a literally visceral disgust with the futility of their efforts, but the futility of war in general is a harder position to defend. Constipation is futile too, but it's going to happen whether we like it or not.