Sidney Lumet directs Sean Connery, Harry Andrews and Ossie Davis in this war time drama about the over zealous punishment of the shirkers and deserters consigned to a desert stockade.
Fascism and corruption fight free will and collaboration in a military prison. We start out with a gruelling real time indoctrination. Lumet at his most candidly procedural. We get to experience a few laps up and down the hill, feel the heat of the Libyan sun, the unsure footing of the sand banks, watch even the hardiest hero be felled by a couple more steps. After that we switch to a macho play on film. Not opened up. Lumet likes the claustrophobia and pressure. The state of play becomes repetitive as both sides try and goad and bully the other into making a provable error. Bullying overwhelms every interaction. Bullying on film is often inaccurate. It is not just violence towards a weaker individual. It is a relentless cornering of that person until they a forced to break the rules too. A bully wants to see you lash out or fight back. As then they can use the full force of the rules meant to protect you against you. A bully wants you to be a defenceless version of their own weaknesses. The performances are superb. Connery, the star, is the closest we have to a hero. Yet he is passive unless the opportunity is right. He endures until he spies winnable ground. Ossie Davis is subjected not just to the regular dehumanisation of this process but suffers racism from all sides. He is never broken by them, amplifying the fears in their face in his bravura finale. Then on the side of the officers we have Ian Bannen’s sole good chap and Ian Hendry’s nasty bastard. Two sides of the same coin but one struggles to find his strength of character while the other is viciously sure of himself. The insidious power of the loudest or smartest voice gives way to the most unblinkingly confident. A culture of fear and unwavering fealty to rank fuels the mistreatment and power plays. The finest piece of acting is Harry Andrew’s as the man in charge. He lives by tenets that do not allow for the nuances of personality. And that is his ultimate undoing. Not that anyone wins. For a film that revels in its monochrome starkness, very little is black and white here. If Twelve Angry Men was a celebration of the democratic system, this Twelve Shouty Men is an evisceration of the very idea of systems having power over men.
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