Sometime during the summer of 1962, I saw the previews for this movie at the Eagle Drive-in Theater. Being nine years old and a fan of the DC war comics, I thought it looked great and really wanted to see it. But what with one thing and another, I never did. Until now, almost fifty years later. So the question is, did HELL IS FOR HEROES live up to the expectations of that nine-year-old Sgt. Rock fan?
In a word, yes.
This is a really fine war film with an excellent ensemble cast. The story is simple: a small squad of American GIs are left on their own to hold a section of the front lines against a possible German advance. This effort becomes a taut, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game as the soldiers try to convince the Germans that their force is much larger than it really is.
Steve McQueen is perfect as the anti-social new replacement in the squad who proves to be the best soldier in the bunch despite being unlikable. Fess Parker, Davy Crockett his ownself, is the decent, competent sergeant in charge of the operation. Bobby Darin is the outfit's scrounger, and Nick Adams, in an odd but effective bit of casting, is a Polish refugee who becomes the unit's mascot. Harry Guardino, Mike Kellin, and the great James Coburn, cool as ever, are also on hand. The most blatant bit of stunt casting is Bob Newhart, fresh off his hugely successful comedy record album (which is even mentioned in the trailer), playing a clerk/typist who blunders into the battle while looking for division HQ. Wouldn't you know it, the script comes up with a reason for him to talk on the telephone (a field telephone, but still), and that bit might come across as too cute except for the fact that it actually makes sense in the plot and Newhart is extremely funny, as you might expect. That's the only bit of humor in an otherwise grim and gritty film that's made even more so by the stark black-and-white photography.
Some people think HELL IS FOR HEROES is a pilot of sorts for the TV series COMBAT! (one of my all-time favorites). I don't know about that, but there are certainly similarities, starting with the screenwriter Robert Pirosh, who wrote many COMBAT! episodes. The look of the film is virtually identical (it was filmed on the same sets and locations as the TV series), and the dynamics of the small squad of soldiers is very familiar. Considering the way I feel about COMBAT!, it's no surprise that I really enjoyed HELL IS FOR HEROES, too.
If you're a fan of war movies and haven't seen this one, I definitely give it a high recommendation. I'm glad I finally watched it, even if it was fifty years late and not at the drive-in.