Steve McQueen on mesmerising form in Don Siegel's bleak anti-war classic

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Anthem For Doomed Youth

Between the release of his career-defining performances for director John Sturges in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), Steve McQueen experimented with his screen persona in three wildly varying military projects. He played a scheming Navy lieutenant-cum-casino thief in comic misfire The Hollywood Machine (1961); a cocky WWII fighter pilot in the underrated, British-made The War Lover (1962) and the ferocious, wild-eyed infantryman Reese in Don Siegel’s superlative anti-war classic Hell Is For Heroes (also 1962).

One of the first Hollywood-produced combat flicks (alongside Robert Aldrich’s earlier Attack) to truly deliver on its promised anti-war message, Hell Is For Heroes was originally crafted as a showcase for the emerging McQueen but ended up becoming far more in the accomplished hands of Siegel.

Writer/director Robert Pirosh (who’d won an Oscar for scripting William Wellman’s 1949 Battle of the Bulge drama Battleground, and went on to create US TV’s classic ’60s WWII drama Combat!), based his original script on the true story of seven massively-outnumbered Gls in 1944, ordered to hold their position on the Siegfried Line until reinforcements arrived.

After polishing up a final draft (entitled Separation Hill) in consultation with his star, Pirosh shot a week’s worth of footage before the ever-capricious McQueen demanded a rewrite that increased his screen time and reduced the importance of Pirosh’s ensemble cast, which boasted the cream of Hollywood’s young acting talent. Pirosh refused, only to have Paramount kick him off his own flick and replace him with Siegel.

Which is the best thing that could have happened to the now-retitled Hell Is For Heroes. Despite Pirosh’s pedigree as a writer of war dramas, his slender output as director languishes in justifiable obscurity, with only his remarkable 1951 Japanese-American soldiers-at-war opus Go For Broke! worth seeing, while Siegel was about to kick-start 10 years of unparalleled creativity. Hell Is For Heroes bristles with the snappily-edited emotional urgency honed on B-movie classics like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Baby Face Nelson that soon became his trademark.

Filmed over several weeks, with the woods of Redding, California standing in for wartime France, Siegel’s movie takes place over 48 desperate hours as the men of 2nd Squad find themselves reassigned to the Siegfried Line. Joined by the insubordinate, battle-scarred Private Reese, no amount of well-drilled discipline or jovial bonhomie can disguise the lone squad’s sense of doom. They’re dead and they know it.

Despite Siegel and rewrite man Richard Carr’s brief to big up McQueen, Hell Is For Heroes works precisely because Siegel, ever the wily professional, was able to placate his needy star and stay true to Pirosh’s ensemble vision.

Sure enough, McQueen’s mesmerising, as he always was with the right director. Sporting a scrubby beard and a snarling fuck-you attitude, he’s a killer defined by war, living for combat and left incapable of forming human relationships.

McQueen may be the undoubted star, but Siegel serves all his cast well. The film is stuffed with deadly-earnest performances, most of which serve to accentuate the random, ever-present carnage. From James Coburn’s wry, fatalistic mechanic Henshaw to Mike Kellin’s displaced family man Kolinski and Harry Guardino’s raging Sgt Larkin, Siegel takes the usual Hollywood GI stereotypes and relentlessly subverts them.

Comic relief is briefly supplied by hustling Private Corby (played so well by ailing Vegas crooner Bobby Darin that you wish he’d devoted his short life to movies rather than lounge-core classics) and green-as-they-come decoy Private Driscoll (first-time actor Bob Newhart, cleverly riffing on his classic man-on-the-phone comedy routines). But even their light-hearted schtick ends in sober desperation as Siegel delivers a bleak monochrome vision of the European theatre at its most unforgiving. This slice of cinematic combat wouldn’t be matched for intensity until Saving Private Ryan almost 40 years later. Even then, Spielberg couldn’t resist a climactic blaze of flag-waving optimism.

No such conclusion for Siegel, ever the dark-hearted nihilist. Hell Is For Heroes ends with 2nd Squad decimated, their sacrifice instantly forgotten as the battle rages heedlessly on and Siegel’s camera zooms in on the unimpressive lone pillbox they’ve sacrificed everything to destroy. War is hell.

DVD EXTRAS: None.