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A small band of men, led by a hero, going somewhere, to do something dangerous. That’s the essence of the combat film genre. But the genre has other familiar features. The men, for example, are a polyglot of different religions, class backgrounds, and ethnicities. One functions as comic relief. Another has a grudge against the leader from some previous encounter. Internal tensions lead to a crisis that threatens to tear the group apart. The climax centers on the achievement of victory.

The combat film genre first emerged in World War II. By the late 1940s it was well established, and when audiences flocked to such movies as Sands of Iwo Jima and Battleground (both released in 1949), they knew what to expect as surely as if they were going to watch a horror film or a western. But, as happens with every genre, over time filmmakers began to play with its elements in an effort to keep the stories they told fresh, and to interpret them in new ways. One of the first and best of this new wave of World War II combat movies is Hell is for Heroes, released in 1962 and starring Steve McQueen, who was just then emerging as one of America’s iconic movie stars.

In many ways Hell is for Heroes follows the conventions of the combat film genre. It starts by introducing a squad of American infantrymen bivouacked in a ravaged French village near the German border in late 1944. The squad is the usual polyglot. The crew’s leader, Sergeant Jim Larkin (Harry Guardino), is bluff and by-the-rules. Corporal Frank Henshaw (James Coburn) loves nothing better than to tinker with automobile engines. Private Stan Kolinsky (Mike Kellin) is a Polish American. Into this mix comes a replacement, Private John Reese (McQueen). Reese is a loner, terse, cold and remote, a first-rate soldier in combat, but reckless and self-destructive when out of action. He was a senior noncommissioned officer before an off-duty escapade cost him his stripes.

Hell is for Heroes (1962) Steve McQueen (as Reese) (Paramount/Photofest)

The GIs soon board trucks and travel to a defensive position opposite the German Siegfried Line. It transpires that the understrength squad (six riflemen) must hold a line that would require an entire infantry company (120 riflemen) to defend properly. This desperate mission perfectly fits the combat film genre. Tension soon develops between Larkin and Reese. While this conflict between leader and outsider is also a standard of the combat film genre, Hell is for Heroes gives it a crucial twist. The
audience is asked to identify not with Larkin, who in earlier combat films would have been the hero, but with Reese, the outsider who in earlier films would have been the antagonist. Hell is for Heroes is thus one of the first in this genre to feature an antihero: a protagonist who lacks heroic attributes.

The quarrel between Larkin and Reese centers on a violent disagreement about tactics. Larkin, who believes in following orders literally, wants the squad to hunker in its foxholes. But Reese argues that a static defense would be fatal. The Germans would expect a company-strength unit to probe their defenses as a matter of course. The absence of a probe would telegraph weakness and therefore invite a German attack. Consequently, the squad must convincingly simulate a patrol. Reese’s judgment, the audience grasps, is correct. Eventually, Larkin grudgingly agrees.

The simulation works, but subsequently a German patrol comes at the group from out of the darkness. In a brief sharp firefight, most of the enemy soldiers are killed or captured. But two or three, Reese figures, have been able to get away with word of the weakness of the team’s position. That augurs a certain full-scale German attack. The only solution, Reese argues, is an assault on the German pillbox in front. This strikes Larkin as crazy, particularly since the pillbox is surely protected by a minefield. But a shell explosion soon obliterates Larkin; command of the squad falls to Corporal Henshaw. Henshaw, strictly a mechanic at heart, knows that Reese has the better head for tactics. From then on, Reese calls the shots.

Taking a 40-pound satchel charge, Reese leads Henshaw and Kolinsky into no-man’s land and they crawl on their bellies, with Reese in the lead, feeling for land mines and marking each one for the others. But it doesn’t work.
Henshaw trips a mine and is killed. Now discovered, Reese drops the heavy satchel charge. He and Kolinsky race back to their foxholes, but just short of safety a machine gun rips open Kolinsky’s belly. Screaming in agony, he dies.

Reese has gambled and lost. And, it turns out, lost needlessly, for almost immediately a company unexpectedly arrives to hold the position in strength, and the embattled squad dissolves as its survivors are folded into another unit. The next morning, the Americans launch an assault. Reese recovers
the satchel charge and knocks out the pillbox, but only by deliberately
sacrificing his life.

It’s an atonement, we realize. But the camera pulls back, taking in the whole battlefield. Seen from a distance, the attacking Americans are like ants, and the squad survivors we have come to know are somewhere anonymously within the swarm. The only distinguishable feature is the burning pillbox—Reese’s funeral pyre.

That’s the final twist of Hell is for Heroes. It denies movie-goers the
triumphant ending they have come to expect. The audience assumes that if Reese must die, then it will be like the death of John Wayne’s character in Sands of Iwo Jima: an apotheosis. But seen from a distance, Reese’s death is just an incident. And he, like the squad he tried to save, is simply gone. ✯

This story was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.