Tensions mount at a British army stockade in the North African desert during World War II when a sadistic guard begins brutalising the prisoners.
The hill referred to in the title is the focal point of the camp, a 35-foot pyramid of scorching sand which is used as a form of punishment, with prisoners who refuse to conform forced to climb it endlessly until at length they collapse of heat exhaustion.
On the parade grounds surrounding it, and in the whitewashed fortress beyond, the inmates – men who have gone AWOL, cowards, thieves, brawlers, black marketeers and misfits – march, sweat and suffer out their sentences until they are “turned into useful soldiers again”.
Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) is a one-time Sergeant Major, a tough professional soldier who has been “busted” of his rank and imprisoned for striking an officer (after being ordered to lead his men to certain death).
The guard determined to break Roberts’ spirit is Sergeant Williams (played by Ian Hendry with narrow-eyed neurotic menace), who undertakes the task with relish.
Amongst the other inmates, Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) is a lardy opportunist, George Stevens (Alfred Lynch) is a timid, homesick private and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) is a ferocious Scotsman with a touch of moral cowardice.
Roberts won’t be broken, even by hours of forced marching over the hill. In fact, when Williams goes too far and punishes sickly Private Stevens to death, Roberts makes it his personal mission to see the sadistic sergeant destroyed.
Harry Andrews provides a bravura performance of eye-rolling, bellowing brutality as the camp’s Regimental Sergeant Major; Michael Redgrave is superbly flaccid and weary as the camp doctor; and Ian Bannen’s portrayal of a decent-hearted guard, reduced by weakness to a sort of court jester, is a triumph of sensitivity.
Ossie Davis is brilliant as a West Indian prisoner who is also driven to rebel, and whose act of doing so – a comic-poignant rejection of everything military – makes the film’s most memorable scene.