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Enrico Maria Salerno,
Enjoyable, but fails to fulfill the screenplay's potential
The different contributions by the screenplay and the director to a movie's quality have always been misunderstood. Critics, amateur and professional, give all the credit to the director when a film is good, and all the blame when a film is not.
"The Hell With Heroes" has a brilliant cast and a really good screenplay that, with one final polish, could have been a masterpiece. However, Universal entrusted this project to a TV director and a second string crew, and the movie did not fulfill its potential. Nevertheless, "The Hell With Heroes" is interesting and enjoyable, and in places quite moving. Better than almost any other film, it demonstrates that if the screenplay is good, a fine movie will probably result, even if the director is sub-standard.
Set in 1946 in North Africa and Europe, where the ravages of the Second World War have caused shortages of everything, "The Hell With Heroes" tells how two American ex-servicemen are lured into working with black-marketeers. One of the ex-war heroes falls in love with the mistress of the head of the racket, and all the main characters face dilemmas and have to make difficult choices. With that narrative material and that cast, a classic film could have resulted.
Unfortunately the director did not know where to place his camera: frequently the camera is too close, when a medium shot would have been better. Even worse, the director is in too much of a hurry and does not allow scenes to play naturally, with characters pausing to think, and with emotions rising gradually. There are several key scenes that fall well short of the screenplay's potential. This is not the cast's fault. They do the best they can, and Rod Taylor in particular provides some high quality emotional acting.
Another area where the movie should have been better is in the make-up and lighting of Claudia Cardinale. Cardinale in the 1960s was a magnificent woman, but her beauty is given no help in "The Hell With Heroes". If only someone like Jack Cardiff or John Alton had been behind the camera! (If only someone like John Frankenheimer or Robert Wise had been directing!)
"The Hell With Heroes" seems to have disappeared in recent years, and is now almost unknown. Not long ago a bootleg DVD was touted on Ebay, and the vendor stated that the copyright was in the public domain. I hope this is incorrect, because I want Universal to issue a proper wide-screen DVD.
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