Friday, August 23, 2013

Hill 24 Doesn't Answer

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Starring: Edward Mulhare, Michael Wager, Arik Lavie, Margalit Oved, Michael Shillo

Of all the films I’ve yet to see from 1001 Movies, this is undoubtedly the film I’ve been searching for longest.  This is not a readily accessible movie, and I have a feeling I wouldn’t have seen it at all save for Chip’s from Tips from Chip resourcefulness in somehow tracking down a copy.  It was released on DVD for the briefest of moments, but only as part of a Jewish cinema special set, and that was fairly cost prohibitive before disappearing entirely.  So frankly, I’m glad I just got a chance to see this one, full stop, because it’s been so hard to find.
But funnily enough, by the time I finished watching it, I was glad I’d seen it because, well, it’s actually rather good.  (If I sound surprised by that, it’s because I’ve learned that the films that are hardest to track down are usually unavailable for a REASON.)

Set during the fighting between the Arabs and the Israelis in 1947, the movie starts with the information that a United Nations dictated cease-fire will take effect at 5:45am.  Four patrol soldiers fighting for the Israeli cause are given the orders to try to take Hill 24, a strategically advantageous position, before that time so that when the border between Israel and Palestine is finally decided, Hill 24 will be Israeli.  We meet these four soldiers as they flashback to events that lead them to their current position.  There is Jim Finnegan (Mulhare), a British government worker originally stationed in Israel as part of the British guard who ended up staying because he fell in love with an Israeli woman.  There is Allan Goodman (Wager), a Brooklyn tourist who came to Israel to see the sights but stayed because of an emotional connection to fight the good fight with his people.  There is Esther Hadassi (Oved), a young Israeli woman who is raring to fight and will not let her gender keep her down.  Finally, there is David Airam (Lavie), a multilingual Israeli who has the most combat experience out of all of them and has seen some pretty horrible things.  

The film is divided into three mostly even sections as we learn about Jim Finnegan, Allan Goodman, and David Airam in turn.  Esther’s story is mostly tied in with that of Allan.  You’ve seen this structure of a film before, as each character in turn flashes back and tells “their story.”  While not exactly my favorite narrative technique of all time, such a device serves to move the film along by automatically sectioning it into three distinct acts.  As each character has a (mostly) fully formed story to tell, we have three beginnings, three middles, and three ends, all of which are bookended by the film as a whole.  Frankly, it works here.

And a big reason why I feel it works is that I thought the film kept getting better with every successive story.  Jim’s tale, the one we kick off with, feels like I’ve seen it before.  There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it felt like a fairly rote romance between two opposites.  Just as I was beginning to tire of Jim, though, we switch over to Allan.  Allan’s tale is very different; he goes to Jerusalem for a guided tour of the Old City and wants thrills and excitement.  Somehow joining up with the freedom fighters along the way, he finds himself caught in a firefight at night between the Arabs and the Israelis, and oh so quickly, his dreams of thrills disappear as he encounters firsthand the horrors of war.  Winding up injured and in the makeshift hospital, he has a crisis of faith with a rabbi and his desperation only grows.  Whereas Jim simply fell in love with an Israeli girl, Allan goes through a much more interesting emotional rollercoaster.  Yes, it starts to feel a bit like propaganda (this was the first film fully produced in the new country of Israel), but that’s to be expected, and I was still invested in Allan’s transformation.

And then we tote out the brief, but easily most potent, story of David.  David’s flashback, unfortunately the shortest back story of the lot, was gripping.  He recalls a previous encounter in battle in Israel when he found himself rescuing an enemy soldier who turns out to be German.  This segment was absolutely riveting, and when the film transitions smoothly from David’s powerful tale to the more nationalistic yet still powerful finale of the film as a whole, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer definitely ends on a high note.  Rare is the film that I feel gradually improves as it goes; if it starts rather slow, usually it ends rather slow.  But no, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer crescendos up to a very strong ending.  And I’ll add here that I should have expected it, as the film opens with a wicked punch to the gut.  The film makes absolutely no bones from the get-go about delivering a fairly bleak and powerful tale, but managed to lull me into complacency with Jim’s rather predictable flashback.  

I couldn’t help but be reminded of several other films while watching Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, the two most significant of which were made prior to Hill 24.  I really can’t help wondering if Thorold Dickinson was heavily influenced by The Third Man and All Quiet on the Western Front, or if the similarities are honest coincidences.  The Third Man’s influence is most notable in Jim’s flashback.  In it, we see that while the British have some sort of control on the turmoil-ridden city of Haifa, there are rebel fighters at every turn.  There is so much rubble and confusion and a sense of barely-withheld anarchy that one could easily transplant Jim’s Haifa for Harry Lime’s Vienna.  All Quiet on the Western Front, on the other hand, shows a very heavy influence in both Allan’s story, as his transition from thrill-seeking naïve tourist to war-hardened, disillusioned soldier is played out in very similar terms to that of Lew Ayres’ Paul.  And in the final segment of Hill 24, where David tells his story, all I could think of, ALL I COULD THINK OF, was the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul is trapped in a bomb crater with a wounded French soldier, the enemy.  There are imprints of All Quiet on the Western Front all over this film.  I don’t necessarily think that a bad thing – All Quiet on the Western Front is an amazing film – but derivative is still derivative.

Really, if I’m being honest with myself, I expected something far worse from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.  I expected this film to be in the book for the sole reason that it’s the first Israeli film, and not on the benefit of the film itself.  But I was wrong.  Hill 24 packs a punch.  Not a huge punch, sure, but it’s there.  It’s a bit of a shame this film is so hard to find.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.  Oh, and did I mention that the print SUCKS?  It’s hard to watch – not because of the film itself, but the graininess is almost too much and definitely detracts from the viewing experience.


  1. Sorry about the visual quality. I think it was transferred from someone's home VHS recording of a TV station's broadcast of the film. It was the only one I could find, though. And this seems to be the single hardest entry to find for most people.

    I didn't get invested in this film for one reason: we already know the sad fates of the characters from the beginning. Because of that I just didn't fully connect with their stories. It's not just this film, I had the same thing happen with The Virgin Suicides and others.

    Had we seen their stories and only then seen their fates, I think it would have had a much larger impact on me.

    By the way, List entry #991 No Man's Land spends most of the movie with enemy combatants trapped in the same trench. It's the film that beat Amelie for Best Foreign Language film. While I'd recommend it (three stars) I consider Amelie to be the better of the two.


      Alright then. No "sorry" allowed.

      Fair point about knowing the ending in advance. I don't have that issue, mostly because I'm interested in seeing how we get to that point, but also because I usually have a poor memory and about three quarters of the way through the film I'll have forgotten about the very opening scene.

    2. I think it's an emotional defense mechanism with me. I don't tend to watch tearjerkers that I know are tearjerkers. I just don't want to feel depressed. However, I have been greatly moved by very sad films (i.e. Schindler's List) that I have taken the time to watch because I didn't realize just how sad they were going to be.

      That brings us to the films that I start to watch without knowing they are going to be sad, but then very early on they tell us they will be. I think I close myself off some when I find this out and therefore don't even get to the point of caring too much about the people so I therefore don't get "hurt" as much when their stories conclude.

      In The Virgin Suicides they tell us right at the beginning that all four sisters kill themselves and that no one knows why they did it. We then spend the rest of the movie seeing them from the narrator's point of view, but I tuned out some because A. I knew they were going to die, and B. I knew we weren't going to know why, so I think subconsciously I felt "why bother getting invested in this situation when I know I'm going to be sad and frustrated if I do?"

      At least that's my amateur, pop psychology self-analysis.

    3. I very much relate to your self analysis, especially the bit about not wanting to feel depressed. When I watch war films, I will try to distract myself in small ways to keep myself from getting too emotionally invested so that I won't be AS hurt when everyone eventually dies. Italian neo-realist films are hard for me for that reason too; I honestly don't know if I can watch The Bicycle Thieves for a second time because of how utterly emotionally crippling it is. I don't really want to put myself through that experience a second time.

      I'm all about a film that will put me through the emotional wringer IF, and only if, it manages to provide some sort of catharsis at the end. Bergman does this for me REALLY well. But if the film just emotionally beats me up from start to finish with no sense of enlightenment, then I don't think I really need that in my life. I would much prefer to be happy when watching a movie.

  2. First, I completely agree with Chip on Amelie and No Man's Land.

    The biggest disappointment for me with Hill 24 was that there were four characters we were supposed to care about, but we only got three stories. What about Esther's story? Why wasn't it worth showing?

    1. Having not seen No Man's Land, I can't comment on how it compares to Amelie, but even though I'm not as in love with Amelie as the two of you, I would tend to believe you two about it getting an unfair pass at the Oscars.

      And yes about Esther. She's in the tale, we THINK we're going to get her backstory, and then she's just an ancillary character. Definitely a bit disappointing.

  3. You were not looking very hard, as the film is readily available on a quality remastered DVD from Ergo Media-!

  4. DVD copies of the film seem to be readily available now on Amazon.